MOVIE REVIEW ‘Taking Woodstock’ Is a Lesson in Film Technique, American History

Not Just the Music, but the Story Behind It

Taking Woodstock

Directed by Ang Lee

Written by James Schamus

Starring Demetri Martin and Henry Goodman

Rated R

Now Playing at Regal Fenway and Somerville Theater

Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Hulk; Brokeback Mountain) has once again proven his insight and versatility as a director. Taking Woodstock is a delightful comedy set in the Catskills in upstate New York, 1969. It tells the story of Elliot Tiber (Demetri Martin), a Greenwich Village designer who comes home to help out with his parents’ old, run-down motel in White Lake, NY.

Elliot holds a musical festival permit for nearby Bethel, NY. When he hears that an upcoming music festival has been denied a permit and cancelled, Elliot offers to hold it in Bethel and offers his parents’ motel up for accommodations. He meets some initial resistance from the townsfolk, who are adverse to the idea of a bunch of high-on-drugs hippies partying in their town, but goes ahead with it anyway. Half a million people show up and clog the freeway into the Catskills, in what would become the famed Woodstock Festival. Along the way, we meet Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy), who owns a farm on which the festival will be held on; Sonia and Jack Teichberg (Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman), Elliot’s crazy Jewish parents; Billy (Emile Hirsch), Elliot’s friend and recently returned Vietnam War vet; Vilma (Liev Schreiber), a transvestite; and a local theater troupe living in a barn next to the motel. Elliot himself experiments with drugs in a visually colorful and experimental scene.

It quickly becomes clear that music is not the focus of this film. In fact, there are no scenes of the concert itself, nor do we see any of the performers. Instead, we hear music in the distance and catch a glimpse of the stage from afar. The focus is on the personal stories surrounding the concert, and the music is simply a backdrop that brings the stories together.

The film experiments with technique. In one scene Elliot and others are getting the motel ready for guests and dealing with inspections. The screen is split, and in one half we see Elliot from where the camera is placed in front of him; in the other we see the same scene, but from behind Elliot. The split screen adds another dimension of space and conveys a sense of chaos in the room.

For a non-American director, Ang Lee certainly has mastered this very American story. Taking Woodstock is not a blockbuster hit, by any means. It’s a subtle film about a special time and place in American history and features a large supporting cast. As always, in Ang Lee style, it fuses a little bit of history with culture and a human story.