Woodstock festival plays supporting role in coming-of-age story
Taking Woodstock—it bears repeating—isn’t really about the legendary music festival in 1969. The pop-cultural aura of “Woodstock nation” and the event itself hover on the edges of everything that happens in Ang Lee’s new movie, but the action in the foreground focuses mainly on the gently comic dramas that unfold in the lives of some of the locals most involved in bringing that huge runaway extravaganza into the Catskills and rural New York state in the first place.
In the process, the movie itself becomes a festive sort of social comedy—part panoramic period piece, part sidelong coming-of-age story, part nonchalant paean to pansexual liberation. As such, it’s partly a comic-lyrical counterforce to Brokeback Mountain, but it can also be characterized with equal justice as a variation on another of Lee’s successful pictures—Sense and Sensibility—as filtered through Woodstock, the Summer of Love, gay lib, etc.
Lee and screenwriter James Schamus have based their story on Elliot Tiber’s memoir, Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert, and a Life. Young comedian Demetri Martin plays Elliot (re-named Elliot Teichberg in the movie) and acquits himself amiably and effectively as the central but by no means dominant figure in the film’s frisky little time-capsule circus of emblematic character types.
Elliot, an interior decorator by profession, is a young businessman and local promoter, a semi-closeted gay man trying to help manage the run-down motel owned by his Jewish immigrant parents. Financial necessities and familial aggravations, rather than any countercultural idealism, animate the process by which he becomes the key intermediary between festival organizer Michael Lang (Jonathan Goff) and local dairy farmer Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy) on whose land the event would subsequently take place.
Lang and Yasgur both play enabling roles in the story of Elliot’s edgy passage into adult maturity and full self-awareness. Indeed, much of the character’s progress is evoked through a kind of narrative triangulation, in passing encounters with festival-goers and friends, and in sublimated emotional grappling with the dogged old-world habits of his improbably irascible parents (Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton).
The ailing Vietnam vet Billy (Emile Hirsch), an old friend from high school days, serves as a sorrowful foil to the still fresh-faced Elliot, and a transvestite ex-Marine named Vilma (Liev Schreiber looking buff and unrepentant in a skimpy cocktail dress) plays deadpan mentor to Elliot while also serving as a freelance security guard at the family’s motel. A blissed-out hippie couple (Paul Dano and Kelli Garner) ease the comparatively straight-looking young man into an acid-tripping threesome in the back of a VW van.
Lee stages some large-scale scenes on the outskirts of the festival action, including especially a monumental traffic-jam sequence. But much of what is best in the film is a matter of small moments and intimate detail, particularly in Elliot’s gradually emerging recognition scenes with Vilma and with his parents.