Lee Makes Magic in 'Taking Woodstock'
Kathleen Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Anyone who lived through "Brokeback Mountain" and "Lust, Caution," Ang Lee's last two films, can confirm the need for a vacation. Both of those superb movies were hard going, relentlessly mapping the bruised, bloodied places where luckless lovers touch. Now comes "Taking Woodstock," a down-home slant on reunion and communion writ large, three days of "peace and music" during which love is free and mostly painless. Drifting through a slow stream of vignettes, "Woodstock" is as unfocused and benign as a stoner's gaze. Audiences addicted to high-octane highs will surely tune out of Lee's sunny daydream.
Adapted from his memoir, the story of "Taking Woodstock" is told almost entirely from the POV of Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin), a half-in, half-out-of-the-closet gay hopelessly entangled in his money-grubbing mother's apron strings. Elliot's Jewish-immigrant parents operate a run-down Catskills motel, and their deadpan boychik keeps abandoning what little life he has in Greenwich Village to come home and save them from foreclosure. But Elliot is surprisingly entrepreneurial, jumping at the chance to lure a music festival to his sleepy burg -- and soon hippies and suits are 'coptering in to vet Max Yasgur's rolling, 600-acre farm as a possible site.
As White Lake becomes Mecca for flower children heading for "the center of the universe," Elliot wanders through the scene like a slowly awakening Adam, entranced by the exotic flora and fauna. Standing at the edge of a lake, flanked by his liberated dad (Henry Goodman) and Vilma, a cross-dressing former Marine (Liev Schreiber), Elliot takes in the naked bathers, innocent as children. A breeze rises, riffling Elliot's mop, while distant music infiltrates the midday quiet, like portents of magic to come.
As the roads clog, a bemused motorcycle copy transports Elliott through an endless pilgrims' progress of war protesters, feminists, animal activists, nuns, dopers and dreamers. There's an eerie charge to that nearly silent passage: humanity spellbound, drawn toward some primal source. When Elliot, trippin' big time, finally glimpses that source, Lee delivers a purely mythic image, breathtaking in its audacity. For Woodstock's convocation of lovers, the earth truly does move.
So make no mistake: "Taking Woodstock" doesn't mean to be a documentary about the 1969 festival that became a cultural touchstone for a generation, whether as bad or glorious head-trip. What we're "taking" in this movie is a specific perspective on an event we barely witness -- music heard from just over the hill. So if this Woodstock comes off as Edenic, full of sweetness and light, don't assume the movie's advertising the real thing. Think of it as Ang Lee taking a vacation from too much reality.
Performances in "Woodstock" range from over-the-top to majorly chilled out. Dropping the tiresomely ironic pose he's affected on Comedy Central, Demetri Martin makes Elliot sympathetic kin to Dustin Hoffman's dim bulb in "The Graduate." As his shrewish mom, Imelda Staunton goes for broke, by turns hilarious -- shower-capped, stockings at low ebb, herding a school bus into a field like an irritable terrier -- and monstrous. When, fueled by Mary Jane brownies, she boogies like a Russian peasant, her great breasts bobbling, toward "my little baby," you know in your bones she's capable of eating Elliot. Eugene Levy's wonderfully self-contained, a canny farmer who's not about to be bamboozled by city slickers but doesn't let money get in the way of his delight in the nation of kids camped out in his backyard.
Soaper vet Jonathan Groff delivers a memorably mysterious performance as curly-maned frontman for the buttoned-down festival organizers. Elliot's childhood friend from the old Brooklyn neighborhood looks like an angel in flower-child gear, but he's got the eyes of an old, sly soul. At significant intervals, he appears on horseback to comment on the action, a modern-day shaman, one foot in hippie heaven, the other in the world of big bucks. In contrast, Emile Hirsch's Vietnam vet isn't quite sure where he is; Elliot tries to help by participating in one of his pal's wartime flashbacks, but it takes an earthy return to one special hill -- made memorable by high-school homecoming high jinks -- to restore this shattered soul.
But Liev Schreiber just plain steals the show as platinum-tressed, deep-voiced Vilma, all his considerable brawn somehow packed into a little pink dress. If anyone in "Taking Woodstock" should be outside the pale, exiled from home ground, it should be this cross-dressing security guard with a quintessentially macho history. But in this gentle fable, Vilma is as strong, steady and nurturing as Mother Earth, uttering with impeccable certainty the most memorable line in the film: "I know who I am, and that makes it so much easier for everybody else."
So don't look for Jimi Hendrix, Joan Baez, The Who, Janis Joplin, et al., to show up at this peaceful reunion. And, mostly, you'll have to take the festival's half-million celebrants on faith. It's enough to keep company with one small tribe of ordinary folk, transformed for a day or forever, by whatever magics the air in "Taking Woodstock."
Kathleen Murphy currently reviews films for Seattle's Queen Anne News and writes essays on film for Steadycam magazine. A frequent speaker on film, Murphy has contributed numerous essays to magazines (Film Comment, the Village Voice, Film West, Newsweek-Japan), books ("Best American Movie Writing of 1998," "Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West") and Web sites (Amazon.com, Cinemania.com, Reel.com). Once upon a time, in another life, she wrote speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Art Garfunkel and Diana Ross.