This past August marked the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock music festival, the zenith of America’s hippie movement, so it is fitting that director Ang Lee has made Taking Woodstock, a behind-the-scenes look at the legendary festival that works as both a standalone piece and as a worthy companion to the 1970 documentary Woodstock.
Lee has explored Eastern cultures and mythology in such films as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Lust, Caution, but as a filmmaker he seems more drawn to material exploring the American psyche and iconography. So it isn’t surprising that Lee would direct a film about one of the most iconic American events of the 20th century. What is surprising is that the film is such a warm, low-key comedy.
Much like Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, Taking Woodstock is a rose-coloured love letter to a specific time and place. That is not meant in a disparaging way it is the nature of nostalgia to remember and enhance the best parts. The screenplay by James Schamus, who also wrote Lee’s The Ice Storm, focuses on the all-encompassing power of peace and love, which is as it should be, since that’s what the Woodstock festival was all about.
The film centres on Elliot Tiber (Demetri Martin), a young man splitting his time between New York City and helping his Jewish immigrant parents (Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton) keep their failing motel in Bethel, New York afloat. When Elliot, the president of the chamber of commerce, hears that the Woodstock festival was kicked out of an adjacent town, he offers the organisers a recently approved permit for a festival. With the help of the lands of an open-minded farmer (understatedly played by Eugene Levy), the Woodstock festival had its new location.
Elliot is played by Demetri Martin, a quirky, deadpan American stand-up comic, whose dry line delivery suits the material well. Martin is required to be the straight man for the colourful characters that surround him including Emile Hirsch as a tweaked Vietnam veteran and Liev Schreiber as an ex-marine turned transvestite.
The film, based on Elliot Tiber’s book, spends most of its time on the fringe of the festival. There’s no concert footage. Lee instead recreates the time period and atmosphere and it is extraordinary how authentic the film looks. The film is so spot on that at times you’d swear it was as if Lee had travelled back in time. This comes across most brilliantly when Elliot hops on the back of a police officer’s motorbike as it weaves through the miles of gridlocked traffic leading to the playing fields.
There other magical moments, as when Hirsch, recalling his American football glory days, takes the first slide into Woodstock’s infamous mud. Hirsch’s performance borders on being over-the-top, but he keeps it just grounded enough, especially in a scene where Martin tries to participate in one of his Vietnam flashbacks. The same can be said of Staunton. She plays Elliot’s mum as a broad caricature, but she is such a talented performer that it still completely works. Her scene tripping on marijuana brownies with her husband is a hoot.
The film’s best performance comes from the underrated Schreiber, who was most recently seen doing good work in the half-baked X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Schreiber doesn’t play his transvestite as a campy clich. He is simply a guy in a dress and a wig and yet he is wholly believable. He acts as the film’s thoughtful side and as a guide for Elliot.
For those unfamiliar with Woodstock this is a funny and pleasant introduction. As for those who may have been flower children, hippies or freaks in the 1960s, this is a nostalgic reminder of a time when it really seemed like peace and love could travel the globe and end all suffering.