Movie review: Taking Woodstock

Taking Woodstock (2009)

Directed by Ang Lee. Starring Demetri Martin, Imelda Staunton, Henry Goodman, Eugene Levy, and Liev Schrieber.

I’m not sure what they were thinking, but I thought that opening this movie on the weekend after the Woodstock concert anniversary was one of the worst scheduling decisions I’ve seen in a while. Not the weekend of, the natural choice, or even a week or two weeks beforehand, but the weekend after the anniversary, after it had been hyped up and picked over and commentated upon and it had gotten really old even for the people who thought that the defining concert of the free-love era was worth commemorating. It’s like opening a Christmas movie a week after the holiday — hey, we’re really over that now, the moment passed, and I don’t want to see it.

So, I didn’t go to Taking Woodstock when it opened, even though as a new Ang Lee film I had some interest earlier in the summer in doing so; I’m also a mild fan of Demetri Martin and his stand-up comedy (though I was not enthralled by his short-lived Comedy Central series, despite how very earnest it was in its intent to entertain), so having him in the lead role was not in itself a deterrent. I was just so tired by the hooplah surrounding the 40th anniversary that I didn’t feel like it, and I’m sure the vast moviegoing public shared my sentiment, which is too bad, since the movie is rather low key and sweet and deserved a more fitting opening weekend than it got.

The story is told around the fringes of the festival itself, and doesn’t get any closer to the central stage of the concert than a grassy hilltop so distant that the performers are, to paraphrase a lovely line of dialogue that I wish I could remember precisely, no more than tiny ants making musical lightning down below.

The first half or two-thirds of the movie concerns a Jewish family running a motel in a small dairy farming town near the Catskills, and the role they played in making the epic hippie music and love event happen at all. The concert, which had been denied permits in two other counties (including the eponymous Woodstock, NY, which is not where the event was held after all), is in danger of not taking place for lack of location, until Elliot (Martin) realizes he (as the leader of the local Chamber of Commerce) has the ability to set up the Woodstock Concert Promotions corporation in his parents’ motel as headquarters, and convince his dairy-farmer neighbor (a winningly canny Eugene Levy) to open his pasture land as the concert site.

There are a ton of side and supporting characters, all portrayed as gently comical, that flit in and out of the movie. An acting troupe full of zany performance artists in love with free expression is holed up in Elliot’s barn, and they take a couple of opportunities during the movie to throw off all their clothes and race around naked, which is a minor spectacle that (as you can tell from my Oh, Calcutta! review) I enjoyed seeing. I was left a little disappointed that some of my favorite wacky side characters (including Levy, the acting troupe, and Liev Schreiber as a cross-dressing Korean War vet) didn’t get a final appearance at the end of the movie to round their subplots out, but by then the story has narrowed down from the chaos of setting up the concert to its very individual effect on Elliot himself.

Elliot is a sweet, even-tempered, introverted, nice young man who has emotional-distance issues with his parents, which at this point is starting to seem like a stand-in for Ang Lee himself, since most of his movies have a central character like this. I was struck during this movie that it seemed to be crystalizing exactly what makes an Ang Lee movie an Ang Lee movie, re-exploring all of the themes that interest him time and again, and allowing him the opportunity to make some of the same formal experiments with visual storytelling that he’s dabbled with before. Many times the movie breaks up its frame into overlapping split screen frames of simultaneous action; it’s something Lee used in his Hulk movie as an interpretation of side-by-side comic-book panels, but here it’s also an evocation of the Woodstock documentary movie and its use of split-screens. It also slowly begins to dawn on one, when two of the characters meet at a turntable not to discuss rock and roll, but instead begin a shy, earnest discussion of the pleasures of listening to Judy Garland, that we realize there’s some Brokeback Mountain revisitation going on here, too.

The movie evokes one of the cultural conflicts of that era in a way that can’t help remind one that the exact same conflict is happening in the news this summer, forty years later. The conservative older folks in the town aren’t happy with all of these young wacked out liberal kids getting together to destroy their homogenous little town with their drugs and orgies. They start with freezing out Elliot with icy looks and barbed remarks, and move on to strikes and angry protests, none of which do the slightest thing to stop from happening a happening that cannot be stopped. Commenting on the pinheadery of his WASPy neighbors, Eugene Levy remarks that he’s heard more pleases and thank-yous and witnessed more conscientious good manners by these crazy hippie youngsters than he’s heard in 20 years from these supposedly upstanding but incredibly closed-minded townsfolk.

The use of soft drugs (excepting what I describe below) is mostly shown as a part of the counterculture but not all there is to it. There is, once again, a scene in keeping with the renewed mainstream trend of showing the effects of marijuana ingestion to be unthreateningly mild — Transformers 2, e.g. — where eating pot brownies by mistake gives somebody’s parents a temporary case of the sillies. A dubious and harmful suggestion, as I maintain that you have to eat them on purpose and know what you’re in for to enjoy it; if you have no idea, you’re almost guaranteed a paranoid freaky bummer of an experience. (I note a recent news item where several people checked in to an emergency clinic feeling poisioned and traumatized after eating what they thought were normal brownies.) In any event, it’s especially dubious over-selling of the notion for the movie to say that Elliot’s parents ate “four each.”

As the film starts winding down in its final third, Elliot is encouraged to leave the motel and go enjoy the festival. He’s given a motorcycle ride by a state trooper who says he expected to come down and crack his baton over the heads of rowdy druggies, but instead he’s changed his attitude after witnessing how well behaved and well intentioned these kids are, en masse and individually. This is a sentiment among the state police who helped coordinate traffic and do general peacekeeping for the festival weekend that’s been documented. Even 40 years later, some are still willing to go on record as saying it was the best behaved crowd they’d ever seen. Once at the concert site, though still a mile away from the stage, Elliot meets some kids with a van, climbs in with them, takes a tab of acid (not the brown stuff that’s going around and sending people to the come-down tent) and has one of the more realistically depicted trip experiences I’ve seen in a movie, from the initial anxiety-inducing intensity to the post-peak elation of stumbling around under the stars and seeing things in a new way.

The movie ends on a strange note, with the main concert organizer riding away from the muddy trash-strewn pit left in the wake of the event, and telling Elliot to come West to help him with an even greater happening they want to do, with the Rolling Stones at Altamont. If you know the history, this Stones event was a disaster, with the Hell’s Angels who are enlisted to provide security ending up stabbing someone to death. We’re left with Elliot determined to go find a better future for himself, but what he’s apparently heading for is a major bum trip. I suppose there’s something of the story of America and what the baby boomers of the Woodstock weekend did with themselves after that remarkable peaceful weekend encoded in that, but the movie doesn’t spell it out. Like I imagine Ang Lee himself to be, his movie is a little too polite and introverted and nice to be overt about it.

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