Director Ang Lee and screenwriter James Schamus use a transformative event in American pop-culture history as a springboard to explore one man's personal growth, and they do so with gentle humor and nuance in Taking Woodstock. A surprisingly intimate drama given that it deals with such a monumental event, the film captures the excitement and energy of Woodstock, yet never loses sight of the deeply personal tale it sets out to tell. With rock-solid performances from everyone including relative newcomer Demetri Martin, and a refreshingly subtle score from Danny Elfman, it's a relaxed comedy drama that speaks directly to our need to accept social change or remain forever imprisoned by our own prejudice.
It's the summer of '69. Elliot Teichberg (Martin) is an interior designer working in Greenwich Village. When he's in the city, he feels empowered by the gay rights movement; when he goes home to the Catskills, he feels alienated and isolated by the small-minded locals. Nevertheless, his parents' ramshackle motel is about to be foreclosed on, and in order to save it, Elliot returns home for the summer. He's planning a small music festival when he learns that the promoters of a proposed music and arts festival in nearby Wallkill have lost their permit. Instinctively, Elliot calls Woodstock Ventures producer Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff), who's planning a substantial outdoor concert featuring Janis Joplin, among others, with an offer to use of his family's land and accommodations. Unfortunately, the land is all swamp, but thankfully Elliot's neighbor Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy), a progressive-minded farmer, is more than happy to host the festival on his 600-acre dairy farm. Though the townspeople are aghast, the hippies soon begin rolling in, bringing the spirit of the free-love era with them as Elliot does his best just to keep things running smoothly.
They say that you don't really know someone until you've seen how they respond to a crisis, and when his community goes up in arms at the idea of being overrun by counterculture weirdos, Elliot himself doesn't even seem to know how he'll react. But Elliot is about to discover just how strong he can really be. The part of Elliot Teichberg isn't an easy one, yet Martin is a natural in his first leading role. Reposeful and assured, he stands strong at the center of the storm, even when occupying the screen alongside such formidable talents as Imelda Staunton and Liev Schreiber. Of course, it doesn't hurt to have a director of the caliber of Oscar winner Lee guiding your performance when it's your first big film role, but Martin plays every beat just about to perfection, including a brief yet crucial moment with his onscreen father (Henry Goodman, endearingly naturalistic) late in the film. Likewise, it's great to see Eugene Levy in something other than a terrible straight-to-video sequel or an inadvertently frightening family film. His role here may be small, but he manages to do quite a bit with it in a scene where he reflects on his reason for renting out his land.
As solid as the performances may be, Taking Woodstock could have easily faltered by failing to capture the true spirit of the era. With Lee at the helm and cinematographer Eric Gautier manning the camera, however, the details are just right. Not only does the duo create a fitting companion piece to the Woodstock concert film by occasionally employing the split-screen style that helped give that Oscar-winning documentary its distinctive look, but they also use grainy film stock and natural light in a way that gives the movie a convincing air of authenticity, which perfectly compliments Schamus' artfully refined script. Given that the primary conflict of the film is an internal one, the story unfolds at the kind of patient, leisurely pace that may seem deceptively trivial at first glance, but allows us to truly understand and appreciate the protagonist's dilemma by giving us the time to get to know him. Though anyone seeking to bask in iconic recreations of key Woodstock moments is bound to be disappointed by the fact that we never once see the performers (and only hear their music from a distance), Taking Woodstock isn't about the spectacle but the seeds of change that were planted as a result. It succeeds in large part thanks to its amicability, and its message of acceptance makes it an irrefutable product of the time when a generation came together in an attempt to enact genuine social change.
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- Released: 2009
- Rating: R
- Review: Director Ang Lee and screenwriter James Schamus use a transformative event in American pop-culture history as a springboard to explore one man's personal growth, and they do so with gentle humor and nuance in Taking Woodstock. A surprisingly intimate drama… (more)