Taking Woodstock opens Friday throughout the Triangle
The '60s hadn't quite reached White Lake, N.Y., at the start of that decade's last summer. Elliot Teichberg (Demitri Martin) restless but dutiful, has returned to the El Monaco Motel, his parents' grubby summer holiday camp in the Catskills. Again, he'll try to parlay his position as the youngest-ever president of the local chamber of commerce into a bit of community prosperity. He seizes his moment, when nearby Wallkill, N.Y., nervously bounces a proposed music festival, and Elliot, vested with the power to grant official town permits, inadvertently finds himself playing host to a transformational cultural moment.
Did you ever dream of being at Woodstock? I had friends old enough, but nobody I knew went—their parents wouldn't let them. And, frankly, the press of the crowds and the shortage of amenities (food, water, toilets) never seemed that appealing to me. But this film conjures the tingly feeling of being there. A restless camera tracks Elliot as he picks his way through the weekend crowds, with the concert only a distant echo ("ants making thunder" as one blissed-out concertgoer puts it). Peace and music, but mostly the serendipitous encounter with ubiquitous hippie philosophers, unselfconscious nudists, improvised guerrilla theater and freely shared controlled substances.
Director Ang Lee stirs the simmering mélange of prejudices that began to unravel in the '60s. The Catskills small-towners have a smoldering dislike of the Jewish residents in their midst, which erupts in flashes of anti-Semitism when Elliot convinces nearby farmer Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy) to host the counterculture party in his field. Emile Hirsch is Billy, Elliot's high school buddy who is now a flashback-plagued Vietnam vet searching for closure (and whose profane language, which shocks his old friend, makes me wonder if this was how the armed services' vigorous use of the f-word became integrated into mainstream speech). Security chief Vilma, a philosophical, cross-dressing ex-Marine (played with wry warmth by Liev Schrieber), befriends Elliot's henpecked father (Henry Goodman). "Do you think my father knows what you are?" Elliot wonders, but Vilma says, "If I know who I am, what else matters?"
As for the sex, well, all of a sudden everyone is shtupping in the bushes. Environmental and feminist issues emerge in the film, but their historical moment would arrive a little later. All the acting is excellent, but Imelda Staunton, as Elliot's bitter, penny-pinching, cholent-cooking mother, steals each of her scenes. The real surprise, however, is Martin, The Daily's Show's stand-up veteran, whose Elliot is simply adorable and utterly convincing, a timid good son who finally embraces his free-spirited destiny. He looks to me like a real movie star, a Dustin Hoffman for the aughts.
Lee knows we've all seen—or think we've seen—the other Woodstock movie, the music documentary directed by Michael Wadleigh (and edited by Martin Scorsese, among others), so we experience part of the festival in that familiar Woodstock split screen. Lee (born in 1954) is just barely old enough to claim membership in the Woodstock generation, even if he was living in his native Taiwan at the time. Still, the Oscar-winning director nails the groovy vibe as effortlessly as he conjured up 1970s suburbia in The Ice Storm.
Even as everyone is enveloped in a mellow psychedelic haze, the transient nature of the event is foreshadowed. The festival was a perfect moment that's already slipping away by the time the hordes of muddy concertgoers stumble back into their real lives. The current generation may long for a Woodstock moment, but it may have experienced it already with the election of Barack Obama—one only hopes that the vicious right-wing backlash we've seen lately won't come to represent the antithetical disillusionment that Altamont would become, a year after Woodstock. Lee's nostalgic film captures that desire, that wish that our fleeting high could last forever.