This review of Taking Woodstock appeared in the Australian Jewish News on August 27, 2009 in a shorter format. The full review is below.
Directed by Ang Lee
Written by James Schamus, based on the book by Elliot Tiber
Starring Demetri Martin, Henry Goodman, Imelda Staunton, Jonathan Groff and Liev Schrieber
August 2009 marks the fortieth anniversary of Woodstock (see my August 10, 2009 post), the famed counter-cultural concert event in upstate New York. As the baby boomer organisers and attendees are now in mostly in their sixties, there is a veritable flood of memoirs and accounts detailing this most unusual and defining moment in American cultural history. One of these is Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, A Concert, and A Life, by Elliot Tiber, a gay Jewish artist and writer who is widely acknowledged as having “saved” the concert and brought it to Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, after the nearby town of Wallkill refused to host the event. Tiber is the son of two Russian immigrants who ran a cheap motel in Bethel, and who served as the president of his local chamber of commerce.
Tiber’s story has now been turned into a major film by Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Lust Caution) entitled Taking Woodstock, which is a messy, uneven but hugely enjoyable film. Taking Woodstock operates sort of the same way Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (Tom Stoppard’s play) relates to Hamlet: it is the “back story” of the minor characters we only glimpse in the “main” play (the 1970 concert film Woodstock, due for DVD and Blu-ray re-release). Richie Havens, Ravi Shankar, Joan Baez, Country Joe McDonald, Santana, The Greatful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, The Band and Crosby Stills Nash and Young (the list goes on) – none of them appear in this film, although their music is occasionally heard in the background.
Ang Lee does American historical periods well: his Ice Storm effectively portrayed early 1970s suburbia. For those who lived in the America in the 1960s (and I did), Taking Woodstock does nostalgia even better than the original concert film. And Lee’s Woodstock is BIG: he brought in what appears to be many thousands of extras, effectively recreating much of the event itself, which brought some 500,000 concert-goers to the Catskill Mountains location and reportedly created a 90 mile (145 kilometre) traffic jam, all the way back to New York City.
One of the problems with Lee’s film is that his main characters – Elliot (played by comedian Demetri Martin) and his Russian-born parents Jake (Henry Goodman) and Sonia (Imelda Staunton), whose surname is “Teichberg” in the film – are simply not that interesting, particularly compared to the scores of minor characters who drift in and out. The four well-known organisers of the Woodstock festival all appear – Michael Lang, John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, and Artie Kornfeld – in small supporting roles, but are given little to do. Only Lang (played by Jonathan Groff, with an appropriately large “Jewfro”) spends any time on screen, mostly providing Zen-like comments to a befuddled Elliott. Farmer Max Yasgur is played by well-known comic Jewish actor Eugene Levy, who also disappears quickly.
Demetri Martin’s Elliott appears to be strangely passive in the face of the momentous events swirling around him: unlike his parents (shamefully over-acted by Goodman and Staunton: these performances are as far from Lee’s Brokeback Mountain as you can get), he never rouses to any sense of interesting emotion, and his closeted gay identity is given little dramatic tension. These three characters almost suffocate what could have been a profound commentary on American culture and innocence. Taking Woodstock is also loaded with events and characters which contribute little to the film’s momentum: Liev Schrieber plays a transvestite who helps out with security; there is an alternative drama group living in the Teichberg barn whose actors insists on taking their clothes off at every opportunity; and Elliott has an “acid” trip, the result of which is … nothing. There is an important lesson here: even though Elliott Tiber’s (Teichberg) memoir recounts lots of interesting events, we the viewer want to see them add up to something more than a few good stories. Viewing the events through Elliott’s eyes gives us no additional insights.
Despite these serious flaws, Taking Woodstock is an interesting film, which had me smiling throughout. It is partly the sense of “good fun” which Lee brings to the proceedings, but also his energy – including an interesting use of split screens to illustrate how many viewpoints going on in some scenes, his loving care to the details of the time and the sly humour in almost every scene (my favourite: “It’s August, it’s not going to rain.”)
The script also goes to great lengths to point out the completely Jewish background of Woodstock: farmer Max Yasgur, the Teichbergs and three of the four concert organisers were Jewish, a fact noted by a number of angry non-Jewish locals of Bethel, who resort to antisemitic graffiti and one of whom shouts “We ought to run you Jews out of town”. Woodstock – and the American counter-culture generally – were to their eyes a Jewish imposition on “clean” American society, a hint of the “culture wars” which bedevils American politics to this day.