Who knew three days of peace & music would oppress us for 40 years?
(Plus: this movie)
By Melissa Anderson
August 25, 2009
"If you remember Woodstock, you probably weren't there," the
expression goes. And if you were, can you please stop gassing on
about it? Aquarian Nostalgia™ is the most oppressively sanctimonious
and dull stripe of reminiscing. Sure, the three free days of peace
and music at Max Yasgur's farm passed without violent incident, but
almost the second Jimi Hendrix put his guitar down after playing "The
Star-Spangled Banner," the marketplace for boomer
sentimental-journeys sprang up. Though the fact that Michael Lang,
one of the rock show's original four organizers, canceled Woodstock's
40th-anniversary concert because of a lack of corporate sponsorship
suggests that '60s narcissism may finally be coming to an end, Ang
Lee's facile Taking Woodstock proves that the decade is still prone
to the laziest, wide-eyed oversimplifications.
To its credit, Taking Woodstock based on Elliot Tiber's 2007 memoir
Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert, and a Life, and
written by Lee's frequent collaborator James Schamus features no
actors pantomiming Janis Joplin, Ravi Shankar, or Sha Na Na; in fact,
little music from the concert itself is heard. On display instead are
inane, occasionally borderline offensive portrayals of Jews,
performance artists, trannies, Vietnam vets, squares and freaks.
Though his age is never mentioned in the film, the real-life Elliot
(whose surname is "Teichberg" in Lee's movie and who is played by
Demetri Martin) was 34 during the summer of '69. According to his
memoir, Tiber was present at another sacrosanct revolution two months
earlier: Stonewall. Elliot's gayness becomes Lee's tenuous
overarching theme, awkwardly shoehorned in; Elliot and a butch
construction worker he later makes out with meet-cute over a Judy
Garland record. But Elliot's Uranian tendencies must be kept hidden
from his Jewish-émigré parents, Jake and Sonia (Henry Goodman and
Imelda Staunton, the latter of whom is seen passed out on a pile of
cash, clutching tens and twenties), who run El Monaco, a decrepit
motel in upstate Bethel. The good, closeted, budding-entrepreneur son
leaves Manhattan to help them, and, after reading that neighboring
Wallkill says no to hosting a bunch of longhairs grooving out to some
hard rock, sets the wheels in motion for Michael Lang (Jonathan
Groff) and associates to have the concert in his Catskills hamlet.
Beyond Elliot's marginally interesting homo conflict he's given a
push to come out by Liev Schreiber's ridiculous drag queen, Vilma,
who shows up to provide security Taking Woodstock does nothing more
than recycle the same late-'60s tropes seen countless times since the
Carter administration. The rages and flashbacks of Emile Hirsch's
fried Vietnam vet are the usual PTSD overacting. The Earthlight
Players, a performance troupe that lives in the barn next to El
Monaco ("Some are Vassar graduates," Elliot explains), are as dumb a
depiction of avant-garde thespians as something that Jesse Helms
might have concocted. On his way to the concert, uptight Elliot takes
acid and sees the truth; back at the motel, perpetually miserable
Jake and Sonia unknowingly scarf down pot brownies and frolic in the
rain; father and son form a deep post-high bond the next day. Eat,
drink, man, woman. Making his way through the political booths at
Woodstock, Elliot sees women burning their bras at the United
Feminist Front booth a practice debunked years ago, thus making it
all the more irresistible to Schamus and Lee, apparently.
Near the film's end, there's an allusion to Altamont, the free
Rolling Stones concert in December 1969 that would become the
anti-Woodstock, but no mention of an even bloodier event that had
occurred just the week before 500,000 kids gathered to hear Richie
Havens: the Tate-LaBianca murders. Taking Woodstock is a film for
those who like children's stories about tumultuous times everyone
else can pick up Joan Didion's The White Album.
Taking Woodstock reveals gay past
By Ian Caddell
August 27, 2009
NEW YORK CITYWhen Liev Schreiber was offered a role in Ang Lee's
Taking Woodstock, he could see that the part of Vilma, a gay exarmy
officer who dresses in women's clothing, could be complicated, given
that the film was set in 1969long before pride parades and gay
marriage. In addition, Vilma is a role model of sorts for Elliot
Tiber, the film's protagonist, a gay man living with his parents in
upstate New York who has concerns about coming out of the closet. In
a New York City hotel room, Schreiber explains that when he was
offered the part, he didn't know much about the era and its gay
culture, but he learned, through his research, that Vilma would have fit in.
"I discovered that there was a revolution in the late 1960s in the
community, particularly the subset of the drag community. Prior to
that, guys would usually dress up like either their mothers or iconic
Hollywood actresses. Then, particularly in the Haight district in San
Francisco, you had these theatre groups and drag queens doing this
interesting gender-bending stuff where they were embracing the
masculinity in their characters. So you would see guys doing drag
with beards and doing the cancan without underwear and developing a
new gay culture that they took out on the streets. It was pretty bold
stuff. And then you started to see guys no longer doing this as a
fetish or a hobby but as a lifestyle. Before all these surgeries and
exfoliation techniques came along, it just didn't make sense for a
guy to shave every day or wear six-inch stilettos every day. So you
saw these wonderful new characters developing: men who were kind of
multisexual in their looks. For me, it was important to infuse this
character with an element of that, because I felt the contradictions
were essential to the theme of acceptance that Vilma seemed to be
conveying to Elliot."
The filmwhich opens in Vancouver on Friday (August 28)is based on
the true story of Tiber, who was working at his parents' hotel in
Bethel, New York, in 1969 when he figured out that a concert that had
been banned by the residents of a nearby town could move to Bethel.
He met with Woodstock Ventures Inc. and a farmer named Max Yasgur,
and within a few weeks half a million people were on their way to his
town for the Woodstock concert, despite the fact that most of the
townspeople were against it. Schreiber says that when he read James
Schamus's script, he was concerned that the comedy was too broad and
that several characters, including his own, might end up being misinterpreted.
"I had some concerns about the screenplay because some of the comedy
felt cloying," he says, "and I didn't know if they [Lee and Schamus]
intended to make a movie that transcended that and took the edges off
so that the characters became more human and less like caricatures.
It turned out they knew what they were doing, because the comedic
elements really work. I also learned that what James was writing was
not that far-fetched. It was a pretty far-out event, and people were
pretty freaky. It turned out that was the reality of the world at
that point. The thing I liked was the idea that Ang could take a big
historical event like this and humanize it, because I think it allows
the audience to have an intimate relationship with the characters."
Tiber, who wrote the book the movie is based on, knew people like
Vilma in the late '60s, although the character that Schamus created
was a composite of several acquaintances of Tiber's. Schreiber
decided to add someone else to the mix: a friend of his mother's who,
like Vilma, didn't make much of an effort to cover up his masculinity.
"Vilma was based on several characters in the book, but for me she is
based on a guy that my mother knew called Silverbell, who was a
lifestyle queen. He was 62 and had a long silver beard and wore long,
flowing silver gowns and drove around in a white van with a piano in
the back. He was a wonderful, eccentric character, and every once in
a while he would put on lipstick or eyeliner.…He wore a silver scarf
on his head because he didn't like the fact that he was going bald. I
was just intrigued by Vilma's history and with the idea of him being
a grandfather and a Korean War vet and a prostitute and muscle for
the gay community. This was someone who had been through a lot and
had arrived at a place that was a compromise of so many other things
that he was comfortable with."
Peace, love and sexual awakening
Can Ang Lee's gentle "Taking Woodstock" possibly capture the madness
and mud of the legendary music festival?
By Stephanie Zacharek
Aug. 28, 2009
Ang Lee's "Taking Woodstock" is a gentle film that tells the story of
how one Elliot Tiber -- born Elliot Teichberg -- helped a group of
ambitious festival organizers find a site for their concert and a
place in history. It's a nice little story, all right. But "Taking
Woodstock" is so gentle it barely has enough vitality to stick to the
screen. It's harmless enough as a snapshot of a young man's awakening
to the grand possibilities of adult life, but not particularly
effective at capturing the spirit, the thrill or even the mud of this
culturally monumental event.
In "Taking Woodstock," the concert itself is pretty much an
afterthought, which would be OK if it were easier to muster more
sympathy for Elliot. But he's a bland, watery character: Supposedly,
he gets hipper after an encounter with two acidheads in a painted VW
bus (played by Paul Dano and Kelli Garner), but it's too little, too
late. The screenplay is by Lee's frequent collaborator James Schamus,
adapted from Tiber's memoir, "Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a
Riot, a Concert, and a Life," and though Schamus has captured a
little bit of the life and a tiny portion of the spirit of the
concert, there really is no riot in evidence. Lee's filmmaking is
both overly fussed-over and listless. When he splits the screen, you
wonder why he's even bothering: Instead of using the effect to put
all our senses on alert as we do the extra work of looking in two
places at once, he fills each frame with stuff that's hardly worth
looking at -- someone's bent elbow here, a half-obscured face there.
Martin doesn't have enough appeal to anchor the film, and Staunton,
as his hard-bitten, long-suffering mother, is exhausting to watch.
(At one point she glares out through her hard little eyes and offers
a self-pitying speech that begins with "I walked here all the way
from Minsk" and ends up at "with nothing but cold potatoes in my
pockets." I began to laugh at what I believed was an intentionally
comical exaggeration, but I wasn't sure I was supposed to -- Lee
frames the moment blankly, as if not even he knows what to make of it.)
But Lee does capture a few good performances here: Groff is charming
as the almost-bare-chested free spirit Lang, and Liev Schreiber shows
up as a big-hearted, plain-talking, cross-dressing bodyguard.
Goodman, as Elliot's father, has the best moment: An exhausted,
beaten-down man (that Sonia sure is a handful), he blossoms, and even
has actual fun, when his land is invaded by so many friendly, open
young people. At one point, just as the concert is beginning a few
acres away, he and Elliot hear strains of music drifting across the
pond on their property (in which a bunch of carefree, long-haired
kids are happily skinny-dipping). Jake looks at his dutiful son and
urges him to go over to Max's field to hear the music, to be part of
something. Goodman fills the moment with just the right amount of
emotion, and no more. He's packed three days of peace and music into
one glance, which is more than Lee manages to scrape together in more
than two hours' worth of film.
How a Motel and music festival changed a young man's life
By Lisa Kennedy
Denver Post Film Critic
With all due respect to Crosby, Stills, Nash (and Young) and Joni
Mitchell: By the time we get to Woodstockor director Ang Lee's
version we have been treated to half a million minutes of footage
and stacks of books commemorating the storied music festival that
took place 40 years ago this month.
For "Taking Woodstock," Lee and his collaborator, James Schamus, have
turned the tale into an anthropological comedy by adapting Elliot
Tiber's memoir, "Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert,
a Life," into a film.
Tiber, played by comic Demetri Martin, serves as the guide in this
story, which has him moving from New York City to the El Monaco Motel
in White Lake, N.Y., to help his parents the Teichbergs distant
father Jake (Henry Goodman) and biting mother Sonia (Imelda Staunton)
keep their dump.
When a nearby town pulls the plug on a music festival sure to attract
crowds of the unwashed, the blissed-out and the anti-war, young
Elliot offers the El Monaco as a headquarters. Hell Monaco is more like it.
Too dutiful a son, he is also a budding interior decorator. And, no,
that is not code for the fact Elliot is a fledgling gay man. Though
he is. As Lee reminds us with mentions of Judy Garland's death and
unrest in Greenwich Village, this watershed happening occurred during
the summer of Stonewall, the milestone for the gay-rights movement.
Elliot's grand concert idea alienates many of his neighbors. An
exception: irascible dairy farmer Max Yasgur, played with a wry
contrarian streak by Eugene Levy. When Elliot is harangued at the
local diner, Yasgur just observes. But the wheels are a spinnin'.
Right neighborly payback comes when he offers his land to the
The movie has fun with the notion that the festival came out of a
crazy mash-up of the anarchic and the entrepreneurial. Naifs like
Elliot helped and hampered a battalion of lawyers brought in by the promoters.
Lee's larkiest film by far, "Taking Woodstock" features faces
familiar and fresh. Emile Hirsch once again shows why he is becoming
a serious talent. Sure, his depiction of fractured Vietnam vet Billy
feels at times like it's taking place in a different film, but it is
Vilma (Liev Schreiber) arrives from Greenwich Village in high heels,
a bad frock and a worse wig. A former Marine, he offers security for
the Teichbergs and dishes up insights to Elliot about his folks.
But it is big-screen newcomer Jonathan Groff who mesmerizes as
concert producer Michael Lang. A success on Broadway in "Spring
Awakening," Groff brings a knowingness and a sexiness to the role.
Something in his mischievous eyes and calm grin sums up the hope and
opportunism of the period.
Staunton plays Sonia Teichberg as an uber-Jewish mother. It's
unmitigated Borscht Belt shtick. And Sonia is the only character in
which Lee doesn't seem to find something richer.
Even with a startling revelation about Mom's stunted makeup, the
broad comedy takes place at her expense. But then, one should
consider the source: The film suggests Elliot's desire to please her
is equal to his contempt for her.
The gravitas and tenderness typical of Lee, the director of
"Brokeback Mountain" and "The Ice Storm," can be found in the
details, the seemingly marginal moments. This is likely the comedy's point.
Once the festival is underway, Elliot is forever trying to get to it.
It's the journey, man, not the destination.
Paul Dano ("There Will Be Blood") plays "VW Guy." He and his groovy
girlfriend act as tour guides to Elliot's maiden LSD voyage. When the
acid hits, the movie plays with enhanced effects.
But it all feels a little sociological. When Elliot mounts the back
of a motorcycle to get to the music, the slow-poke ride provides a
pan of the variety of souls Woodstock stirred: the bra burners, the
yoga practitioners, the anti-war activists . . .
On the mud-sludge grounds of Yasgur's property, where the stage and
other metal objects have become electrified by the rains, Elliot has
an exchange with Tisha (Mamie Gummer).
As Lang's floppy-hat-wearing Girl Friday, she's been doing her own
laid-back version of observing.
Their exchange touches on the relationship between the cosmic and the
familial, the communal and the parental.
It's a rather adult exchange for a story about youth culture at its grooviest.
Film critic Lisa Kennedy: 303-954-1567 or email@example.com
The gay guy 'who saved Woodstock'
On screen / New film Taking Woodstock tells Tiber's story
August 28, 2009
Ang Lee definitely has a thing for Americana and the gays. The
director of Wedding Banquet and Brokeback Mountain has his latest
fare depicting the summer of 1969, which saw Stonewall's uprising as
well as one of the world's most defining music festivals, Woodstock.
He brings all this to the screen via Elliot Tiber's 2007 memoir
Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert and a Life.
Tiber is now celebrated as "the man who saved Woodstock." When
festival organizers were ousted from their original venue weeks
before the event, Tiber came through with a permit and his
neighbour's huge farm in Bethel, New York. The film follows his
behind-the-scenes experiences with an interesting business take on
the weekend of free love and harmony.
In a phone interview with Tiber from his place in New York I get the
skinny on how the little-memoir-to-big-feature all went down.
Tiber and Lee met when they were both guests on a San Francisco talk
show while the director was promoting Lust, Caution. "I feel like I
won the lottery," Tiber says excitedly, noting the film stuck very
closely to the book.
"When [Lee] first said he wanted to do the film I said, 'It's a
condition that before we start is that you don't change it to just a
young man who saved Woodstock,'" says Tiber. "It had to be clear that
it's a gay man. That's very important to me. And he said, 'There's no
question. I did Brokeback Mountain.'"
The film focuses on Tiber (played by Demitri Martin) and his parents
(Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman) in the lead-up to Woodstock. The
broke family business is suddenly on a goldmine and we see a host of
characters descend on their motel the weeks leading up to the
concert. But the film is more about young Elliot's personal journey,
his sexual awakening and standing up to his parents.
"That weekend let me feel self-esteem which I didn't have much of,"
recalls Tiber. "I felt fat and ugly, even though I had success as a
designer. So I was able to get out and meet people for a change and
not have to hide it. It just was freedom.
"It showed the world that a half million people could get together
through music and peace and love a lot of lovemaking. And a lot of
gays and lesbians had sex and nobody said anything about it. It's the
first time I ever saw that."
The film also captures the struggles Elliot and his family faced in a
small-town community. One scene shows locals painting anti-Semitic
graffiti on their motel.
Tiber's summation of these people is simple: "They're rednecks. They
shoot Bambi's mother in the woods. They drink beer. They knew I was a
New York decorator to them that equals faggot and they painted
that on the walls and I had to paint over the walls all the time."
That weekend though Elliott got some extra help when 100 dykes on
bikes came up from New Jersey and offered their security services.
"[They] said, 'We're volunteering to help you, Elliot. Nobody will
mess with us. There's nobody gonna beat you up.'" Tiber chuckles at
the memory. "Nobody messed with those dykes, those wonderful women."
Tiber is a novelist, playwright, teacher and humorist who has lived
and worked in Europe and the US. His memoir gives a full account of
his celebrity run-ins (from Janis Joplin to Robert Mapplethorpe) as
well as a personal account of his involvement in the Stonewall riots.
"There were only two gay bars in the village," says Tiber. "The
police always harassed us and beat us up outside and took our wallets
and stuff like that. I was there that night in June and there were
about 50 people in the bar, I guess. The cops came as usual and I
said, 'Let's put a bar across the door.' And then someone hollered,
'Gay power.' And I said, 'Huh?!' We never heard that phrase before.
"I got five other big bears and went out there and overturned the
police car and demanded the mayor come. And soon there were a
thousand people including Allen Ginsberg out there in front of the
bar watching what was going on. They never saw gay people resist
The film only mentions Stonewall briefly, focusing more on the music
festival. I'm suspicious of the film's halcyon rendering of early
queer culture with Liev Schrieber (Vilma) as a transsexual in a
small town and not a single homophobic remark. But Tiber assures me
it's the Woodstock vibe. "Even the police they were getting stoned
from the fumes of the hash, I guess, because the cops put flowers in
their helmets. So the police were with us and protecting us.
"It was all free and loving and no worries about being excluded from
the human race and that was the major thing for me there."
Taking Woodstock is definitely a trip. Split-screen sequences
(mirroring the famed 1970 documentary), acid hallucinations and
concert promoters on white horses make for a fantastical world. Forty
years on the festival is fast becoming mythical.
I ask Tiber if he thinks today's youth will have a similar
experience. "I don't think the original concept of Woodstock is gonna
work again these days. We had a very innocent time as it turns out.
I'm hoping they find their own way to make their own Woodstock."
Taking Woodstock: An Opportunity Sooo Wasted
Ang Lee's last film was called Lust/Caution, which is an apt
description of the play in all his work even Hulk between
yielding to messy (often sexual) feelings and exercising discipline,
holding back. He's among the last directors I'd have thought would
want to make a movie about the 1969 Woodstock festival, which was, at
least in the popular imagination, all yielding and no holding. But
it's easy to see why Elliot Tiber's memoir Taking Woodstock (written
with Tom Monte) caught his fancy. Its voice is temperate, its true
subject the impact of the festival on a closeted young gay man who's
finally emboldened to let it all hang out. Tiber, né Teichberg, was
heir to his parents' seedy, debt-ridden Catskills motel, and when the
proposed Woodstock festival was expelled from several New York towns
whose elders feared a glut of filthy, nasty hippies, he saw an
opportunity. Tiber had a permit for a very modest music festival of
his own in White Lake, near Bethel, and he found the Woodstock
planners a spot at Max Yasgur's nearby farm. His parents' motel
became a hub; the money poured in; and in spite of the locals'
anti-Semitic threats, by the time Joni Mitchell got to Woodstock the
kids were stardust, golden, and half a million strong.
Lee and his producer and screenwriter, James Schamus, have turned
Tiber's book into a gentle, rather tepid film. Its first half is
modest and likable, but it goes on for over two hours, and even with
some gay smooching and a lengthy acid trip it stays cool and
cerebral; it doesn't build. You don't expect counterculture fervor
from Lee, but the setting cries out for some raffishness and hustle,
with maybe a touch of Robert Altman's ensemble ringmastery. Most of
the emotional weight in Taking Woodstock is on transactions like
the one between Yasgur (Eugene Levy!) and Jonathan Groff (as
organizer Michael Lang in a vest with no shirt, looking like a
scrubbed hippie Adonis from a stock company production of Godspell).
It's a nice moment when Yasgur tells Lang he expects the organizers
to clean up after themselves but that joke has no payoff. You don't
see Yasgur surveying the endless mud and shit. You're not even told
that the organizers did clean up.
Part (but by no means all) of the problem is Demetri Martin, who
plays Tiber. On his Comedy Central show, Martin is a deadpan genius,
dropping one-liners that seem to come from the dark side of the moon
yet light up our world, making it strange and new. But the part
taps nothing except his bland ingenuousness, and he ends up a dull
bystander. In his memoir, Tiber doesn't have a sparkling personality,
either, but early chapters detail the pain and fear of being in the
closet and reveal that he was actually at the Stonewall gay bar in
Greenwich Village the night of the infamous police raid. Imagine,
throwing rocks at police at Stonewall and then grooving at Woodstock.
You'll have to imagine: There's no hint of that side of Tiber onscreen.
The other actors make little impact even Emile Hirsch as a
traumatized Vietnam vet and Liev Schreiber as a giant transvestite
named Vilma who becomes the motel's director of security. Schreiber
goes against the grain and eschews camp, playing it straight and
matter-of-fact, letting his deep voice and outlandish attire carry
the comedy. I liked him well enough, but the movie needs more
loopiness, more risk-taking. Well, there is one vivid performance:
the British actress Imelda Staunton, fresh from her turn as Harry
Potter's most sadistic instructor, as Tiber's monstrous,
penny-pinching Jewish hysteric of a mother. When this raving Yiddish
gnome is onscreen you don't know where to look. Staunton is amazing …
and ghastly: Her shrill, stylized turn is in a different key than
everyone else's mild naturalism. And Lee and Schamus make a huge
mistake: They have Tiber learning a big, Arthur Millerish secret
about his mother that becomes the film's real climax and helps to
trigger his leave-taking. But in Tiber's book, that secret is in the
epilogue, presented as a sad, ironic twist. Making it a Big Moment
takes some of the thunder from Woodstock itself.
Not that there's too much thunder anyway. The trippy scenes are
studied, as if the director were an android reproducing transcendence
without experiencing it. The most evocative moment in the film is
from a distance, when Tiber hears the first stirrings of the concert
through the trees: The sound design is perfect echo-y, ghostly, yet
tantalizing. Too bad the filmmakers are true to the historical facts
and Tiber is too busy at the motel and never actually gets to that
concert. Sure, it's unlikely the filmmakers could afford half a
million extras (or even a thousand), but the sheer scale of Woodstock
is central to its role in history, and seeing nothing is a real bummer, man.
Flower power & hippie love
Director Ang Lee on making 'Taking Woodstock'
by David Lamble
Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock opens on a note of Borsch Belt comedy.
Elliot Tiber's ferocious mom gives the fish-eye to an enraged guest
at the Tibers' rundown Catskills motel, then proceeds to do her "I
walked through the snow out of Russia" rant to the local bank
president. The El Monaco is virtually a roach motel: unlocked rooms,
pubic hair sticking to unwashed sheets, unconnected phones and fake
air-conditioners. The first third of this bitter Jewish family comedy
is taken up with the Tibers staving off foreclosure.
Elliot (fresh-faced comic Demetri Martin), ever the dutiful and
forlornly closeted good Jewish son, has poured every cent from his
Gotham decorating business into keeping the El Monaco and its
surrounding swampland off the auction block. Elliot's darkest moment
occurs late one night as he hears a bar buddy describe the early
skirmishes outside a tavern named Stonewall. In the nick of time to
save the motel and his own sanity, Elliot answers a small ad by the
organizers of a rock festival, newly evicted from a town near the
If Taking Woodstock resembles any of Ang Lee's earlier films, it's
his anxious 1993 comedy The Wedding Banquet, where a Chinese mama's
boy tries to keep his Taiwanese parents in the dark about his
physical-therapist boyfriend. Like Wedding Banquet, Taking Woodstock
's broadest comic strokes are reserved for the first act. Once Elliot
lays his mom's dirty bedsheets out in an bold X to attract the
promoter's helicopter, the pace of life accelerates and the karma
changes for the better: cash-filled brown paper bags; hippie couples
looking to buy the magic tickets; a pistol-packing, cross-dressing,
ex-Marine grandfather; a wild-eyed Vietnam Vet (jittery and
occasionally stark naked Emile Hirsch) for whom half-a-million music
fans on acid is a far better reality than his private hell of
battlefield flashbacks; state troopers championing flower power; and
a little VW Bus with a hippie girl and boy prepared to give Elliot
the trip of his fret-filled life. Lee succinctly, effectively, with
just a slight wink, incorporates the Woodstock documentary's
split-screen/zoom-lens technical mantras.
For Ang Lee, this film is a kind of vacation from the heavyweight
subjects of his last six features. He has pulled off the elusive feat
of capturing a long-lost state of mind. The flashy parts of the film,
like recreating the mind-boggling traffic jams snaking past the El
Monaco to Max Yasgur's fields, are pulled off seamlessly, but the
soul of Taking Woodstock lies in some offbeat casting.
Demetri Martin is a real mensch as the morbidly conflicted Elliot.
Imelda Staunton gives a grounding and a shot of adrenaline to what
could have been the cliche of the guilt-tripping Jewish mom. Jonathan
Groff, as concert frontman Mike Lang, perfectly channels the mix of
charisma and cherubic bliss with the smarts of a New Age businessman.
Eugene Levy is subtler than his norm as Elliot's only local friend,
farmer Max Yasgur. Liev Schreiber in drag is admittedly not a sight
that every queen will dig, but one that feels right for a time and
place before drag queens aspired to rock-star status. Paul Dano and
Kelli Garner are wickedly right as the acid-tripping VW couple
keeping Elliot from reaching the concert stage.
Having read James Schamus' published script (adapted from Elliot
Tiber and Tom Monte's memoir), I missed some great gay moments like
Elliot's hush-hush affair with a local businessman, but overall Lee
keeps his story's queer beats more prominently in evidence than they
were at the time.
Lee and Schamus manage to stay true to their subject while hinting at
the story's darker themes: the mother's almost rabid greed, or the
jaw-dropping bigotry of many of the Tibers' non-Jewish neighbors. But
you'll come away from Taking Woodstock with a good grasp of what
brought so many different sorts of people to an illusion of oneness.
Lee has discussed the difficulty of finding extras without gym bodies
who were comfortable with the movie's casual nudity. He confided to
me the connection Woodstock has to an earlier, darker film.
Ang Lee: When I did The Ice Storm, I thought I was going to do the
hangover of Woodstock. Woodstock is so abstract there is no way you
can do justice to the material. But this small family drama,
distilled from [Elliot's] story, provided an angle to the event. The
documentary did a great job of portraying what was on stage, but this
little family drama is a gift.
David Lamble: I read James Schamus' screenplay, and noticed one scene
that isn't in the finished film. Elliot is having an affair with Dan
(Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who turns out to be the brother of Emile
Hirsch's Billy, the war vet suffering from post-traumatic stress
syndrome. I was sad that the scene where Elliot has sex with Dan was
cut, because it illustrates the ambiguity of sexual orientation.
I shot it, and it was a pretty good scene, the actors were good.
Actually, there are two scenes, I shot one at the beginning and one
at the end. And we did follow that storyline. But somehow that part
of the story, those scenes had a very different tone than the whole
movie. When we showed the movie around, people got perplexed. We felt
obliged to put something like that in, because it's gay, but then
people didn't know how to react to the movie. We shot in the Eagle
Bar, the leather-jacket bar, like in the book.
Paul Dano has a great cameo as the VW guy who gets Elliot high on
acid, then starts feeling his leg.
The mainstream media call them "hippies," but there were only a few
of them [at Woodstock]. Most were regular kids who were there because
it was Woodstock. I thought that scene has to be an essential hippie
man and hippie girl they carry the duty of all hippie men and
girls. I [needed] a great actor. It's really great he can participate
in such a small part, but a significant part, quite essential, and
[there's] something cool about him not taking a front credit. He's a
wonderful actor, he really grabs the essence.
There's Kelli Garner and Dano rubbing Demetri's leg. The polymorphous
perverse side of sexuality comes out there.
I love that part, too. Actually, that part used to be longer. I was
under pressure that the sequence was way too long, so it got shorter,
but I love that three-way thing.
How does Liev Schreiber become the guy in the dress, with the
revolver strapped to his leg?
That character [combines] two characters in the book: Vilma, the big,
burly ex-Marine/bodyguard/cross-dresser; and Georgette, the German
lesbian healer. I thought [that would work] since the movie is a
conflict between two generations.