September 4, 2009

Woodstock's Groovy Glamour

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This summer marked the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, considered a pinnacle event in American popular culture and the latter half of the 20th century. The festival was billed as three days of peace and music, and featured numerous musical groups from Jefferson Airplane and The Who to Jimi Hendrix, CCR and Sly and the Family Stone, all of whom — amidst rain and upstate New York’s humid summer weather — played to 500,000 people on a 600 acre field. No concert like it had ever been attempted, and the name Woodstock to this day is synonymous with the 1960s, hippies and the Flower Generation, as well as a lofty bar for live music events and culture-changing phenomena involving massive numbers of young people.
That’s the journalistic description of Woodstock, a festival largely remembered through anecdote and the nostalgia of two generations past. Ang Lee’s newest film, Taking Woodstock, is much more concerned with recapturing the life-affirming Bildungsroman of a young person attending the event, told through the eyes of Elliot Teichberg (played admirably by nerd-culture stand-up comedian Demetri Martin). Teichberg wasn’t just a crazed youth attending the festival. Being in possession of the fortunately-timed, singular live venue permit in all of Sullivan County, NY, Teichberg allowed his family’s small motel, the El Monaco, to become the Mecca du jour and the central hub for the festival. Woodstock was originally going to be in Walkill, but that town shut down the show, and Teichberg decided to step up to the plate and put his permit to use, turning his yearly local show into what became Woodstock. His parents, played wonderfully by Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) and Henry Goodman (in a subtle, scene-stealing performance) are not movie parents, and break down their country hospitality as they grasp the scope of what’s about to happen. The Teichbergs don’t have the property to support a festival, so they go to Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy, American Pie) who rents out his farm.
It’s a character-based film, and small yet powerful (and hilarious) roles are offered to Emile Hirsch (The Girl Next Door, Milk) who plays Billy, a young post-traumatic Vietnam veteran, Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Watchmen) as his disapproving father, Daniel Fogler (Good Luck Chuck) as Teichberg’s best friend, leader of a local experimental theater troupe and last but not least, Liev Schrieber (Scream, Wolverine) plays Vilma, an ex-Marine baritone transvestite who shows up to serve as security. Demetri Martin disappears into the role of Eliot Teichberg with the right blend of sweetness, innocence, and desperate desire to spread his wings.
The film is based on Teichberg’s 2007 memoir of the same name, and, at its core, is a remarkable true story. Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain) takes Teichberg’s story and elevates it to the status of great myth. Is the movie a true story? Yes and no. Does it jarringly veer in tone from mythic documentary to art-house neo-Hippie jam to slapstick comedy? All the time. Is this a bad thing? No. The film, despite Lee’s painstaking efforts in finding seas of extras and a clear love of his source material and the era of his subject, is not great art, like his other films can be argued to be. Lee probably didn’t intend to make anything more than a comedy film that doubled as a love letter to Woodstock. However, his treatment of Teichberg’s coming-of-age and the great, stoic, bravery of a young man unsure of the scope of his enterprise nor his impact on history, and the pathos that leads to his self-discovery and desire to strike out into the world … is remarkable. The true story isn’t what’s being depicted. It’s about how Woodstock empowered a generation of youth, and how one person can make a difference. It’s also a film about family, and how they crumble and expand under great pressure, external and internal. It is a film about how death can be overcome by the will to live. Pretty heavy stuff for a comedy. Who cares how accurate the film is? The truth just underscores the story being told. It roots miraculous events in the realm of possibility.
It’s a shame the film ends with no resolution of Vilma’s character, easily the most interesting in the movie. Or Emile Hirsch’s Billy, for that matter. After a glorious, dimly lit Teichberg father-son moment, the film ends abruptly. It’s jarring writing like that that mars the film from a higher rating. For a film with such endearing people running through it, too much time is spent on bawdy scenes of very naked hippies, adding to the faux-documentary nature of the film. Yes, the story of the show is great, but what about the people? At least Lee handles the concert right — there isn’t one. A lot of people just didn’t make it. Woodstock was more than that.
The last conversation in the movie, between Woodstock organizer Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff), frequently depicted somewhat humorously as a spacey hippie idyllically astride a magnificent steed, and a dazed Teichberg, finally on the grounds where the stage had been, is a veiled reference in itself. Lang optimistically talks about hosting a free concert for the Rolling Stones out West as his next venture. This show actually happened. It was called Altamont, and ended much the way Woodstock ’99 would also end 30 years later, in violence, chaos and death. The biker gang Hells Angels were used as bodyguards, and riots ensued, much to the Stones’ dismay, as the country watched in horror. Altamont ended the flower power era of the ’60s symbolically and literally — it took place in 1970. Lee was clever in ending the movie with the reference, as it was proof that Woodstock was a one of a kind moment in time, never to be replicated, always to be celebrated.