I will get this out of the way right from the start so I don’t have to bring it up later.
I love Demetri Martin, and I’ve been waiting for “Taking Woodstock” since…well, March. I saw the preview and was like OMG I NEED TO SEE THIS MOVIE. And when I saw Ang Lee was directing, I was like HELLS YES. Ang Lee, Demetri Martin, Emile Hirsch, Imelda Staunton and hash brownies, Liev Shreiber as a transvestite, and Dan Fogler as the leader of an uber-hippie theater troupe living in a barn. I knew I was going to like it.
And I was right. Now I REALLY REALLY want to read Eliot Tiber’s book, just to see if Ang Lee stuck to the story, and to get even deeper into the story.
I checked out the Tomatometer for weeks before I went to see it, and the fresh percentage slowly went down from 85% fresh to a mere 50% fresh. But I avoided actually reading the reviews because I didn’t want to be spoiled. But last night I went home and read the reviews to see how my opinion measured up to those of the critics.
And our opinions couldn’t be more wrong.
I will admit, the movie was a little slow in places, especially during the acid-induced haze sequence when Eliot (Demetri Martin) come across two hippies in their van outside the festival (Paul Dano and Kelli Garner). The acid trip went on a little long, but the slow pace is really one of the only bad things I can say about the film. However, I knew going into the movie what Ang Lee’s style is, so I didn’t expect an action-packed, constant ride of laughs and I wasn’t surprised. But there were select times in the film where I did actually laugh out loud – including most of the sequences with the Earth Light players – the eccentric theater troupe living in Eliot’s parents’ barn – with their unshaved pubes and angry naked dancing, towards the beginning of the film during the Bethel Chamber of Commerce meeting, and almost everything including Emile Hirsch and Liev Schreiber’s characters.
That brings me to the main point of this film, and of this review – the characters. “Taking Woodstock” is based on Eliot Tiber’s novel of the same name, about how he inadvertently put on the greatest concert of all time in the middle of the Catskills, in turn, saving his parents’ motel from going bankrupt. This is part of the reason why I want to read the book now, because I desperately want to read about the characters more. The casting was brilliant, and I’m not just saying that because I love Demetri Martin, but even though he isn’t a great actor, he was the right kind of guy for the part. Because he’s not an experienced actor, he doesn’t overpower the better actors, who played the more dynamic characters of the story. Demetri has the everyman appeal, and lets the other characters be in the forefront of why the story is extraordinary. One of those characters being Emile Hirsch, by far one of the best actors of my generation, who plays Billie, a Vietnam vet struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, constantly jumping back and forth between flashbacks of war and the present. That quote I used for the title of this review came from him, when he told Eliot how to take on the cops threatening to shut down the concert. Hirsch has the power to make us laugh, and make us feel so much empathy for Billie.
Another of the more baffling characters is Vilma, the transvestite head of security played by Liev Schreiber. He managed to provide the voice of wisdom for Eliot, while rocking some fantastic threads, and being a completely straight transvestite. And it worked. It surely was a different take on the experienced older person who gives seemingly useless advice, but it somehow all works out. Very refreshing, yet very nostalgic.
But by far my favorite character was Michael Lange, played by Jonathan Groff. Some critics have said that his peace, love, harmony attitude was very cliche 60s ideas, but this film was based on Tiber’s book of the true events, and cliches didn’t become cliches without having truth to them first. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s exactly how it was back then, and that’s how Michael was. He was the only person who was sure that the concert would happen, and happen the way it did. He provided the hope that so many of the other people involved lacked.
The reason why I’m spending so much time on the characters is that it’s what I’m guessing Lee chose to focus on. Demetri’s understated Eliot helped put the focus on the rest of the characters. That’s probably how the real Eliot Tiber wrote it too – not all about himself – about everyone else. As an homage to all the people who struggled to make the greatest concert in history happen the way it did – Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy) who let Woodstock ventures use his cow fields, Michael Lange, the brains of the operation, and all the people who showed up on those three days of music and peace.
That’s the point of the film – to highlight how it happened, and who made it happen – the behind the scenes stuff. The point of the film was not the music itself, which is why the Lee and Danny Elfman, who did the soundtrack, didn’t riddle the film with 60s rock songs and live performances from the historic concert. He didn’t completely omit the music. The score was a departure for Elfman, but it was fantastic. The soundtrack does include select tracks from Canned Heat, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, and Crosby, Still and Nash. But that wasn’t the focus. If I wanted to see a 2-hour movie of the concert, I would have watched Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 documentary, “Woodstock.” Why would Lee have made a feature film when there’s a documentary about the same thing? He wouldn’t. Elfman kept the music aspect low-key to keep the focus on why they made the movie in the first place. Because Woodstock wasn’t just about the music – it was about a movement. And the movie is about who made that movement possible.
(So stop ragging on the omission of the music and watch the Woodstock documentary, critics. :/)
Speaking of the documentary – that almost what Lee’s filming reminded me of. The sincerity of the extras and the setting of the film made the film feel so organic, so real. And the multiple frame effect with the boxes made us feel like we were watching the making of it, and my mom said it reminded her of 60s television. She couldn’t pinpoint what exactly it reminded her of, but it was subtle enough without being a pastiche of the films of that time. There was actually one line in particular that jabbed at something specific today. When Max told Eliot about how the neighbors were cashing in on all the visitors, he said, “they’re charging a dollar to use their water.”
“A dollar! For water!” And everyone in the theater laughed, including the woman behind us with a ridiculous cackle that sounded too comical to be true.
I dug this movie. I don’t care what the critics say. Well, Roger Ebert agrees with me. And I always liked Roger Ebert. I miss him and Roeper. Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz suck.
So you may listen to me, or maybe you won’t. But just to say, “Taking Woodstock” made me wish I was born 40 years earlier, so I could have experienced the greatest concert that ever was – and not just because of the music.