Taking Woodstock

Universal Home Entertainment

Ang Lee

James Schamus
Based on the book
by Elliot Tiber

Demetri Martin
Imelda Staunton,
Henry Goodman,
Eugene Levy,
Liev Schreiber,
Emile Hirsch,
Jonathan Groff,
Richard Thomas,
Paul Dano,
Kelli Garner,
Darren Pettie
Rated R, 121 minutes

Ants Making Thunder
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, December 2009

Taking Woodstock (2009) is a delightful film by one of today's finest directors, Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, The Wedding Banquet). Based on the 2007 memoir by Elliot Tiber, it tells the story of the young gay man responsible for bringing the Woodstock Festival to Bethel, New York in 1969. Although the film version downplays Tiber's queer identity, his sexuality still remains a key ingredient in the make up of Lee's large canvas.

Demetri Martin stars as Elliot. When he isn't in New York City working as an artist and as an interior designer, Elliot goes home on the weekends to Bethel to help out his parents. Mom and Dad (Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman) are the proprietors of The El Monaco Resort - a seedy and rundown no star motel. Even that's polite; if the lodgings were across the pond they would probably serve the worst pies in London. The rooms' phones don't work, the air conditioners are empty boxes and towels cost one dollar each. The motel is on the verge of bankruptcy and Elliot pleads with the bank for another extension on their loan while his mother, who claims to have walked across Siberia in hip-deep snow to come to America, makes accusations of anti-Semitism and pogroms.

Elliot is also the President of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce and holds a permit for his yearly arts and music festival. (Elliot plays records on the lawn and a local band performs. It's usually a low key affair.) Suddenly he has an epiphany when he reads in the newspaper that neighboring Walkill had a flash of hippie-panic and canceled the permit for the Woodstock Festival. Seeing this as a way to help his parents make money (and to pump much needed funds into the town), he calls the concert's organizer and offers both a permit and a bigger site. The meadow behind the motel turns out to be a swamp but down the road is this farm owned by a certain Max Yasgur...

The rest is history. The El Monaco becomes headquarters for the concert organizers and everything is turned upside down. The town is in an uproar and prepares for an invasion of hippies as if it was the first sign of the Apocalypse. But, aside from a few glimpses into small town xenophobia, this is a film about dreams and an era when we thought we could change the world. The 60s was a turbulent time and many people, not just gays, came out of their own personal closets.
The film's mood is Dionysian and it's impossible not to get sucked up in the prevailing joy. A policeman who hoped to bust a few hippie heads winds up giving the peace sign to concertgoers instead. We see the stage in the distance and we hear the music in the background, but Taking Woodstock is more about the people behind the scenes than it is about the concert itself. The quirky and colorful cast brings this film to vibrant life. Elliot's parents, especially his mother, are a pair of curmudgeons whose crusty demeanors crumble during the "three days of peace and music." The always dependable Eugene Levy, terrific as Max Yasgur, dispenses folksy charm and the best chocolate milk in New York State. Emile Hirsch (Milk) plays a shell-shocked Vietnam vet whose flashbacks subside when he joins the festival. A nude theatre troupe, residing in Elliot's barn, offers a "contemporary" take on Chekhov's Three Sisters as shocked parents drag their children away.
One of the most unique characters is Vilma, played by Liev Schreiber. Vilma is a very butch transvestite who was a Marine in Korea and used to date one of Elliot's boyfriends. He lifts his dress to expose a gun strapped to his thigh and offers to help with security at the motel. Vilma will also later help Elliot's parents to chill out with a few hash brownies. Schreiber is wonderful in the part. Aside from the long blonde wig and the dress, there is nothing feminine about him and he simply plays the part without resorting to any stereotypes. It is perhaps the best performance by a straight actor in such a role since John Lithgow as Roberta (nee Robert) Muldoon in The World According To Garp (1982).
Although I was disappointed that Elliot's queer backstory is downplayed (we learn in the book that he was at Stonewall and that he hung out in S&M circles with Robert Mapplethorpe), this isn't crucial to the main plot and it is a credit to the director that his identity as a gay man wasn't removed entirely. Taking Woodstock is not a coming out film; in fact it fits the dream of Vito Russo who wrote in The Celluloid Closet that he longed for the day when movie characters could just be gay without it being the thrust of the plot. Taking Woodstock is about wonder and innocence, and Elliot gets to view it through rose tinted glasses.
Viewers who are unaware of Elliot's sexuality at the onset will learn this gradually. There is a charming scene in which he connects with a young workman named Paul (Darren Pettie) who is fixing the motel's stereo. They play a Judy Garland record and talk about her recent death. (Okay, Judy is an obvious giveaway, but her funeral just helped spark Stonewall a month earlier and so the reference is timely.) We see the two men together later and then, when Elliot finds himself in the middle of a hippie dance, Paul reappears and kisses our stunned hero to the cheers of the frolicking flower children. Elliot returns the kiss but then turns, worried, to look where his father was sitting earlier. He is relieved that his father is gone.We aren't treated to a sexual interlude between them but Paul is seen later sleeping in Elliot's bed.
Bethel is hardly the most progressive beacon on the planet and we've already seen ample evidence of anti-Semitism from the town's denizens. A sweet little old lady, who could be Aunt Bee on The Andy Griffith Show, suggests that they have their own version of the Running of the Bulls and wouldn't it be funny to see them chase the Jews in their silly hats? Although hippies seem to the last straw; one can only speculate how they would react if Elliot wasn't closeted in their town. Then again, there is an ugly moment when someone who was opposed to the concert painted "Burn Faggot Jews" on the side of Eliot's family's motel.
Director Lee certainly has an affection for the subject and I was reminded, at times, of Milos Forman's under-rated film version of Hair (1979). The Czech filmmaker made Hair because, having fled a Communist country, he was enthralled by the freedom represented by American Counterculture when he saw the play in 1969. Lee's heart seems to be in the same place. The Asian director hasn't lost the sense of humor he displayed in The Wedding Banquet and Taking Woodstock, like Banquet, is also a superb study in culture clashes. Watch as Mother screams "No shtuping in he bushes!" at two lovers enjoying Eden. (Did I mention that there is a surprising amount of nudity - male too - in this film?) The inspired music choices include The Doors, Arlo Guthrie, and especially "Wooden Ships" by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Anyone who has seen Michael Wadleigh's remarkable Woodstock documentary will be amazed by Lee's re-creation of the milieu. There is a truly remarkable scene, recalling the famous ten minute tracking shot of a long traffic jam in Godard's Weekend (1967): Elliot rides on the back of a policeman's motorcycle through the crowds and backed up traffic in a shot that lasts almost two minutes in one long, unbroken, camera take.
Taking Woodstock had a hard time finding its audience. Young clubgoers probably find the idea of Woodstock ancient. Some don't get the 60s and just hate the word "groovy." And would you believe that I read postings on that griped about all "the gay stuff" in the film? (What, all ten minutes of it?) Some will undoubtedly complain that we do not get to see the concert in Taking Woodstock (Rolling Stone certainly did). Perhaps there were problems with getting rights to the music. A simpler reason may have been that Elliot never gets to the concert. During his first foray into the forest, he drops acid with a young man and woman and enjoys threeway sex in their psychedelic van. They hear the music from far away and the young man, holding Elliot in his arms, likens it to "ants making thunder." Everyone knows that there was a massive rainstorm at Woodstock and, on his next trip, Elliot winds up sliding in the mud with Billy.
Gay men and women have made numerous contributions to history and it's interesting to discover that one of our own is partially responsible for the most iconic concert of the 20th Century. Others involved in the festival have disputed a few of Elliot Tiber's claims. Apparently, he didn't really introduce the promoters to Yasgur for one thing, but he did provide the permit that made the concert possible. Let the author look back at it with rose colored glasses if he wishes. Once again, it's "like ants making thunder."

1969 was a revolutionary year; we should know because Stonewall was a part of it. I was too young to be a hippie in the 60s but, having grown up during that time, I still remain a child of that era. I couldn't help but identify with the infectious optimism of Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff), the delusional concert promoter who sees beauty in everything. But the 60s came to an end and Lee also addresses this at the conclusion of Taking Woodstock. Lang sits on a horse, looking out at the cleanup after the concert, and euphorically tells Elliot that there will be a bigger and even more beautiful concert on the West Coast and that the headliners will be The Rolling Stones. And we all know, as documented in Gimme Shelter, what happened when The Stones played at Altamont, don't we?


More on Ang Lee:
The Wedding Banquet
Brokeback Mountain

Eugene Levy also appears in:
Waiting For Guffman

Emile Hirsch also appears in:

Jonathan Groff also appears in:
The Normal Heart