Taking Woodstock Review
Crouching Tiger helmer Ang Lee crafts another solid drama.
by Joe Utichi, IGN UK
May 18, 2009
Most are too young to be even vaguely aware of Woodstock Music and
Art Fair these days. But the impact of the three-day celebration of
peace and music on a dairy farm in Bethel, New York back in 1969
marked the pinnacle of the hippie era and saw nearly half a million
people descend on the 600-acre site. Acts included Janis Joplin, Joan
Baez, The Who and Jimi Hendrix and the fest was an unprecedented
event in music history.
Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock is the tale of Elliot Tiber (oddly renamed
Teichberg in the movie), president of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce,
who held the only permit for a music festival in the area (he planned
to put on a chamber music show) and invited the event's organisers to
the town when they were denied a permit in the nearby town of
Wallkill. Based on his autobiography, we join him as a young man
(Demetri Martin) struggling to maintain his parent's motel business
and coming to terms with his sexuality.
When he reads that the permit for the Wallkill has been pulled, he
pitches the idea of bringing the festival to Bethel to promoter
Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff). Before long, plans are underway to run
the show on Max Yasgur's farm, proving a much-needed investment of
capital into Tiber's motel, which the organisers use to house
themselves and their offices while the show comes together.
The film is really about Elliot's journey without moving. While
struggling with his own identity and his responsibilities to his
parents - a battleaxe mother (Imelda Staunton) and ailing father
(Henry Goodman) - he welcomes an incredibly liberal collection of
people to his town who teach him the value of personal identity. It's
an incredibly powerful theme punctuated brilliantly by Liev Schreiber
as a transvestite ex-marine, of whom Elliot asks if his father
understands what he is. He replies, "Honey, I know who I am. That
should make it easier for everyone else."
Maybe it's not surprising to see a film with powerful homosexual
themes from Lee, who was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar for
Brokeback Mountain, but he explores the subject with an impressively
deft hand, making Elliot's journey remarkably genuine. The real Tiber
was present for the Stonewall riots, which happened weeks before the
film's timeline begins, but Lee and screenwriter James Schamus focus
their adaptation on a young man whose sexuality isn't so assured
before the film begins and allows the audience to take the film's
journey with him.
It's not quite as successful in that respect as Almost Famous,
another film about a young man's journey into the world of live
music, as Patrick Fugit's character in that film is, perhaps, less
affected by a history that isn't spelled out within the film. But
Taking Woodstock is as much about Elliot's journey as it is about the
foundations of the music festival. In the clash of big business and
hippie ideals that gave birth to the show it's a film both funny and
engaging. On the sidelines, Emile Hirsch as a Vietnam vet and Paul
Dano as an Acid-dropping hippie provide drama and comedy
respectively, while Dan Fogler is hilarious as the leader of an
alternative theatre troop whose main artistic contribution to the
world seems to be to dance around naked.
When the festival kicks off, Elliot is nowhere near the action - if
nothing else, clearing rights to that material would have been mighty
tricky - but Lee gives a comfortable sense of scale in cleverly
chosen CG shots mixed, predominantly, with vast scenes involving extras.
It may not be on a par with Brokeback, nor as powerful as Lust,
Caution, but Taking Woodstock is another triumph for Ang Lee, a
director whose resume gets more and more diverse with every project
Lee brings light touch to Cannes
16 May 2009
By Victoria Lindrea
Entertainment reporter, BBC News, in Cannes
"In comedy, if you don't make people laugh, you've failed. If it's a
drama, you can just claim they didn't get it!"
Perhaps this explains why director Ang Lee has made six tragedies
over the last 13 years.
Plus, everyone knows comedies don't win prizes, and the Oscar-winning
director has certainly had his fair share of high-profile awards.
But this year, Lee is a contender for the Palme d'Or with the comedy
Taking Woodstock - a film which looks at the infamous 1969 music
festival - featuring Janis Joplin and The Grateful Dead among many
other 60s icons - and how it became a defining cultural flashpoint
for a generation of Americans.
Directed by Lee, it is based on the memoirs of Elliot Tiber, who
inadvertently brought the festival to a small town in upstate New
York while trying to find new custom for his parents run-down motel.
"I was yearning to do a comedy," Lee told reporters in Cannes. "After
13 years I felt I had earned the right to be happy, relaxed and at
peace with myself."
In some ways the film can be viewed as a prequel to his tragic drama
The Ice Storm, the only of Lee's films to appear in competition here
The Ice Storm, set in 1973, was viewed by Lee as "the hangover from the 60s".
"Taking Woodstock is the beautiful night before, and the last moments
"It marked the moment a generation departed form the old
establishment in search of a fairer way to live," says Lee
"You have to give those half a million kids credit. They had three
days of peace and music. Nothing violent happened. I don't know if we
can pull that off today."
To recreate the summer of love vibe for his film, Lee set up a flower
power bootcamp, complete with a hippy handbook detailing common terms
such as 'roach' (joint) and 'fuzz' (police).
But the biggest obstacle was finding convincing extras - actors
without over-toned bodies and with pubic hair.
This is nudity, 60s-style.
"That encapsulates the difference of 40 years right there," says
writer and producer James Schamus.
US stand-up comedian Demetri Martin plays Tiber, a young man
struggling to come to terms with his homosexuality and assert his own
identity, brow-beaten by his overbearing mother (a superb Imelda
Staunton) and ailing father (Henry Goodman).
His story operates as the film's focal point, while the actual
Woodstock Festival provides the backdrop. But Lee insists that,
unlike his award-winning drama Brokeback Mountain, this is not
another film about homosexuality.
"I hope people respond [to Elliot's struggle], but it's a small part
of the big story," says Lee. "Inside we are all complicated."
And just as this is not a 'gay film', Lee himself strives to avoid
"I hate to be categorised - by genre, by nationality, as a
film-maker," says the 54-year-old Taiwanese director.
In many ways, it makes him the opposite of many of the auteurs who
grace the competition at this year's Cannes Film Festival.
Directors like Tarantino and Almodovar bring a unique motif to all
their work, but Lee displays a chameleon-like ability to dissolve
into different genres and cultural settings.
Time will tell which the jury prefers, although comedies are always a
long-shot (Robert Altman's Mash was the last out-and-out comedy to
take the Palme d'Or).
For his part, Lee remains determinedly relaxed about the competition:
"Of course I am anxious, but if people like it, I am a happy man."
The director, it seems, is just "going with the flow". Must be that
Cannes Report: 'Taking Woodstock' = Peace and love and Demetri Martin
May 15, 2009
by Lisa Schwarzbaum
There's very little of the authentic music and even less of the
authentic vibe in Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock, a view of the legendary
1969 Woodstock Music and Art Festival as seen through the eyes of a
gay, Jewish, aspiring interior designer and his immigrant parents who
ran a ratty Catskill motel down the road from where it all went down.
So if you want the truth -- and the spirit -- get Michael Wadleigh's
great 1970 Woodstock documentary on Netflix. On the other hand, if
you want a big, crass dollop of British character actor Imelda
Staunton doing a broad oy oy oy Jewish accent, you're in luck:
Staunton hams up an un-Kosher version of a suffocating, manipulative
Jewish mother in this unharmonious production (based on a memoir by
actual son-of-motel-owners Elliot Tiber, written with Tom Monte). The
cast is a combination of plucky young talents (including Martin as
Elliot, Emile Hirsch as a shell-shocked Vietnam vet, and Paul Dano
and Kelli Garner as tripping hippies) and hipster grown-ups (Liev
Schreiber plays a transvestite ex-Marine, and Eugene Levy does his
own bit of rocking as dairy farmer Max Yasgur, whose land became
sacred concert ground).
The movie is undergroovy and overplotted: Clean-cut, dutiful Eliot
blisses out, and afterwards finds the strength to break away from his
damaged, damaging mama. (Come to think of it, aren't many of the
movies Ang Lee has made with screenwriter/producer James Schamus
about frustrated outsiders, from Brokeback Mountain to The Hulk?) It
may be that Taking Woodstock has just the right tourist vibe to
entertain an international Cannes audience that prefers its America
(on screen and off) as a notion rather than a reality. Those more
familiar with actual American pop culture, on the other hand, who
know rising comic personage Demetri Martin from his late-night TV
appearances and his recent Comedy Central series Important Things
With Demetri Martin, are more likely to think, what were the
producers smoking, asking such an untried actor to represent so much history?
"Woodstock" a solid but minor film from Ang Lee
Sun May 17, 2009
By Kirk Honeycutt
CANNES (Hollywood Reporter) - The name Woodstock evokes so many
themes in the mind from the 1960s counterculture to the explosion of
youth music and sexual liberation.
Yet Ang Lee's new film "Taking Woodstock," screening in competition
at Cannes, runs counter to any expectations that a world-class
director would plumb the meaning of this transforming event. Instead
Lee delivers an entertaining light comedy about a real-life person
who somewhat inadvertently helped the whole iconic concert to take place.
It's a low-wattage film about a high-wattage event. Which is somewhat
disappointing, though you do get a thoughtful, playful, often amusing
film about what happened backstage at one of the '60s' great
happenings. Focus Features plans a mid-August release to coincide
with the 40th anniversary of Woodstock. It should appeal to everyone
from that era, from aging hippies and love children to -- perhaps --
a few offspring. The film does not feel like it has significant box
office potential, but Lee's name will boost those numbers. Focus
Features must be careful to emphasize, though, that this is not a music film.
James Schamus' screenplay derives from a book by Elliot Tiber whose
efforts to save his Jewish immigrant family's dying motel in upstate
New York did a lot to launch 1969's Woodstock Music and Arts
Festival. Comedy performer, writer and stand-up Demetri Martin plays
Elliot and does so without any comic ticks. He's simply a guy who
unwittingly sets wheels in motion that swiftly overwhelm him but he
surely does enjoy the subsequent ride.
As a very young Chamber of Commerce president, he learns that a
nearby town has denied a permit for a large music concert so he uses
-- if not abuses -- his authority to bring the concert to White Lake.
(Yes, Woodstock never took place in Woodstock.) His whole purpose is
to get tenants for the El Monaco Motel run by his parents (Henry
Goodman and Imelda Staunton). He gets a dozen to the room by the time
his mother starts realizing the implications.
Of course, that's much later after Mr. Mellow Music Producer, Michael
Lang (a very "relaxed" Jonathan Groff), touches down in a helicopter,
and a battalion of lawyers, event organizers, construction crews and
the like invade the quiet Catskills community.
Comic figures here include a theater troupe leader (Dan Fogler) --
whose actors shed their clothes at every opportunity -- a neighboring
farmer (Eugene Levy), who negotiates a savvy deal for his cow pasture
and a cross-dressing ex-Marine (Liev Schreiber) who hires on as
security (and who is the film's only truly original character).
All too often, the film traffics in well-worn types such as
Staunton's Jewish mother, very much over the top, and Emile Hirsch's
brain-fried Vietnam vet. Also, one would never know from this movie
that guerrilla theater was a vital and fascinating movement in that
era or that drugs such as LSD carried any sort of danger. "Taking
Woodstock" has certainly one of the more benign drug trips in film history.
The film lacks for villains. The local rednecks and a few towns folks
get riled for fear that these hippies will rob them by day and rape
their cows by night. Local mobsters seeking protection money get
chased off by Elliot's dad with a baseball bat.
Otherwise, this is a possibly too tranquil a movie for the
cataclysmic occurrence it seeks to dramatize. The film does well in
capturing the size of Woodstock with its crowds and vehicles and
merrymaking. But it never quite convinces you that this is a
Lee uses the split-screen technique, which was all the rage back
then, and his crew has done a substantial job replicating the
experience of Woodstock from a great distance with bands too far away
to hear well. Yet somehow things never pull into distinct focus.
Characters come and go too quickly, and despite Martin's fine
performance the film's protagonist is ultimately too reactive and
tangential a figure.
It's probably an OK thing that while Elliot is gay, very little is
made of this fact. On the other hand, in 1969, being gay was no
matter-of-fact thing. Perhaps, as with so many other things in this
under-realized movie, something should have been made of this.
The old joke goes that if you remember Woodstock, you probably
weren't there. "Taking Woodstock" creates a new one: If you do
remember Woodstock, this movie is not how you remember it.
First Night: Taking Woodstock
All the fun of the festival courtesy of Ang Lee
By Kaleem Aftab
Saturday, 16 May 2009
Woodstock 1969 lives on as the epitome of cool. Images of free love,
Jimi Hendrix's guitar and Joan Baez, The Who, Janis Joplin et al were
etched into posterity by Michael Wadleigh's classic 1970 documentary.
Forty years down the line, Brokeback Mountain director Ang Lee has
decided to celebrate the geeks that made the concert possible. It's
the most fun film in competition at Cannes so far.
It's hard to imagine a more unlikely hero than Elliot Tiber, who
wrote the book Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert,
and a Life, which has been amusingly adapted by the screenwriter
Demetri Martin, replete with a hooked nose and gaunt features, plays
Elliot, one of life's unhappy nice guys. He could have walked off the
set of American Graffiti. He desperately needs to escape his
adolescence and break ties with his overbearing parents, especially
his mother (Imelda Staunton). They run a failing motel in White
Plains, Woodstock. Ang Lee embraces the clichés, so it's violet
dresses for the girls, and long hair and amusing facial hair for the
boys when they're actually wearing clothes, that is.
As Elliot tries to come up with ideas to save the motel and
re-invigorate the community, we meet an array of kooky characters:
his proud father Jake (Henry Goodman), the mad experimental theatre
group leader Devon (Dan Folger), the chocolate milk-making neighbour
Max (Eugene Levy) and the best friend, Billy (Emile Hirsch), a
Vietnam veteran who looks like he's just out of his nappy. Lee shows
that there were freaks in this town way before the hippies arrived.
Elliot's desperation sees him call the producer Michael Lang
(Jonathan Groff) when he hears the neighbouring town of Walkill won't
licence the concert. And the rest, as they say ...
We're soon into a culture clash comedy as the townsfolk adapt to more
than a million hippies, only outdone by the arrival of Liev Schreiber
as a cross-dressing ex-marine. Alas, the fun does not last. Once the
concert starts and Elliot has his inevitable LSD trip and
introduction to free love, the film drops the comedy for a needless
coming-of-age denouement in which Elliot breaks from his parents. It
would have been better had the movie ended when the concert began.
No Sense or Sensibility: Lee's "Woodstock" Undercooked
by Eric Kohn
(May 15, 2009)
Considering the iconic event at its center, the most surprising
aspect of "Taking Woodstock" lies with the decision to make it into a
rather flat comedy. Even with the ever-versatile Ang Lee behind the
camera, this messy historical fiction plays like a two hour "Saturday
Night Live" sketch, and not a very good one, either.
Demetri Martin plays young aspiring designer Elliot Tiber, whose
abrupt decision to lend his parents' motel and music permit in
Bethel, New York to the folks behind the Woodstock Music Festival
solidified his role in the cultivation of twentieth century American
counterculture. Although the movie culls from Tiber's memoirs, it
lacks any sense of authenticity. Instead, we get an uninspired,
frustratingly simplistic depiction of both the event and the era as a whole.
With the youthful Tiber's amiably soft-spoken persona in the
foreground, "Taking Woodstock" theoretically had the potential to
become a delightful coming-of-age story on the level of "Almost
Famous." Unfortunately, the pervasive superficiality of the
performances and overly referential script rule that out from the
very beginning. Martin's stiff delivery might have worked if he was
surrounded by an aura of credibility, but rest of the cast
complicates the issue. Liev Schriever as a cross-dressing security
manager? I hate to admit it, but he's better in "Wolverine." Imelda
Staunton as a Tiber's Yiddish-spouting mamele? Even Tovah Feldshuh
would have been over the top. Paul Dano as a tripped-out hippy and
Emile Hirsch as a wild Vietnam vet seem more like props than real people.
The eye-rolling quotient is high in this movie, but no higher than in
the final scene, when Jonathan Groffas head of the organization
responsible for the eventstrolls into the arena riding a white
horse, gloriously announcing the next great moment in music history
by hinting at the upcoming Altamont Free Concert. Sequel, anyone?
That moment works according to the same confounding logic of the
movie's opening: Staunton watches television reports of war in Israel
before flipping the channel, where she conveniently discovers
coverage of NASA's plan to land on the moon. "Taking Woodstock"
contains many such blatant nods to history, constantly stripping away
Lee's direction never does much to enliven the proceedings, either. A
split screen devise blatantly ripped from the classic "Woodstock"
documentary just distracts from the action, and an acid sequence
falls low in the pantheon of cinematic acid trips. Occasional
archival footage pops up in expository sequences, which does little
except provide a reminder that the real thing contained many more
entertaining qualities than this undercooked project. Worst of all,
"Taking Woodstock" remains on the sidelines of event, with only
passing references to the actual music. That may pertain to the
context of the story, but it sure would have helped if the movie
contained a catchier soundtrack.