Demetri Martin, Liev Schreiber
Demetri Martin, Liev Schreiber

I found Ang Lee’s new movie, Taking Woodstock, an unmitigated joy. Some of the reasons why are subjective, so let’s get to the full disclosure.

In 1969, I was about the same age as the film’s main character, Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin), the youngest-ever chamber of commerce president in White Lake, N.Y., who, in a ricochet moment of inspiration, gets the idea that his Catskill village should play host to the Woodstock Music & Art Fair. So I belong to the Woodstock generation, even if I came no closer to the event than getting ink smudges on my fingers while sitting in Seattle reading about it in The Village Voice.

Not that I cared about Woodstock, then or now. It’s much more to the experiential point that I grew up in the kind of place where the movie is set. Not the Catskills, or even New York state; but still, a Middle Atlantic States locale (all right, Western Pennsylvania) where the summers bring the same kind of heat, humidity and softness in the air that palpably pervades this film. There’s nothing precious or self-advertising about Eric Gautier’s cinematography in Taking Woodstock, yet his sun-hazed colors bear the scent of home. (Gautier also shot Olivier Assayas’ recent Summer Hours, not to mention Sean Penn’s Into the Wild—clearly the go-to guy for sense of place and season.)

Elliot’s both at home and set quietly apart in White Lake. An aspiring painter and designer in New York City, he remains tethered to his small town by genuine affection but also an increasingly grim sense of duty to his ever-grimmer Russian-Jewish parents. The mortgage on their rundown, little-visited El Monaco Motel is $5,000 in arrears, and even his mother’s attempt to shame the bank into granting an extension (“I walked here all the way from Minsk!”) isn’t going to save them. But making the place operations center for a major rock festival might.

A factor in Elliot’s apartness is the gayness he hasn’t owned up to—not in White Lake and, it’s artfully hinted, not entirely to himself even though, back in the big city, he’s been part of the gay scene and maybe in on the recent Stonewall riot. The assurance and delicacy with which Elliot’s sexual identity is handled, the ways in which it is neither announced nor evaded nor attitudinized, typifies the exactness of Ang Lee’s touch with every aspect of the film. There’s sheer, and distinctly rare, pleasure in how the screenplay (by Lee’s producing partner, James Schamus) casts a countywide net for dozens of characters, lets us spend time with or merely glimpse them as they swim by, but never hauls them flopping onboard as the sum total of a Major Statement about a historic and socio-cultural milestone.

There are no stars in this movie, not even Comedy Central stand-up essayist Martin (who in advance seemed to be a very limited casting idea but does just fine). Yet it abounds in deft character sketches and behavioral beauty.

Why Ang Lee thought to hire two Brits, Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman, to portray the elder Teichbergs is an inscrutable mystery, but they’re comic triumphs. (Setting a plate of gray-brown nutriment in front of her son, Staunton—Oscar nominated as the working-class abortionist in Vera Drake—makes of her one word of dialogue an accusatory dirge: “Eat.”)

Eugene Levy plays Max Yasgur, the dairy farmer who rented out his 600 acres for the rock event; his performance is a dusty jewel, with no echo of Levy’s legendary run on SCTV or his beloved patriarch in the American Pie movies. Liev Schreiber materializes in mid-run-up to the festival as a beefy ex-Marine named Vilma in blond wig and sundress to offer protection and a certain substance-enhanced clarity to the proceedings. This cousin to South Park’s Big Gay Al is close to kneejerk liberal cliché, but Schreiber totally validates the role, and Vilma’s evolving buddyship with Elliot’s dad is an uninsistent delight.

Emile Hirsch adds luster to his emerging stardom as Billy, a boyhood pal of Elliot’s who’s back from Vietnam. Seattle’s own Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays Billy’s brother and, along with diner owner Adam LeFevre (an actor first seen as the most legendary among John Sayles’ Secaucus 7), helps us realize how many worthy lives and possible stories the local citizenry encompasses. Among the big-city operators moving in to make Woodstock happen, Richard Thomas is so sharp as “Reverend Don” that it’s only toward film’s end that I did a silent omigod-is-that-him?!—i.e., the erstwhile John-Boy of The Waltons.

The performances all get the era note-perfect. That includes the Earthlight Players, a communal theatre troupe practicing their art in the barn on the El Monaco grounds. The featured attraction in the much more small-town-scaled arts festival Elliot had originally been planning, they mostly hover on the periphery like crazed moths, waiting the cue to epiphany and their surefire artistic statement: bursting free of their clothes.

You should know (though I was happy to realize it only as the film progressed) that Taking Woodstock makes no attempt to replicate the musical show itself. There’s a wonderful moment when Elliot, his father and Vilma stand watching some interlopers bathing in a pond, and a faint shudder from beyond the hill signals that the first performance has begun, a mile or so up the road. “Go,” Dad says; “see what the center of the universe looks like.” Equally wonderfully, Elliot does go ... though even then, he never really gets there. And that’s exactly as it should be.

Queen Anne & Magnolia News, August 28, 2009

Copyright © 2009 by Richard T. Jameson