© 2009 Ray Wong
Ah, Woodstock. That notorious episode of American counterculture history. The drugs, the sex, the love. And the music. Surprisingly (or not surprisingly), a Taiwan-born director manages to capture the spirit and magic of that moment probably better than any other American director could.
Elliot Tiechberg (Demetri Martin) is a struggling artist/interior designer living in New York City. His Jewish-Russian immigrant parents, Jake (Henry Goodman) and Sonia (Imelda Staunton), run a decrepit motel in Catskills, NY on the verge of foreclosure. Elliot moves back during the summer of 1969 to help his parents raise money for the mortgage and insurance. Elliot also is a closeted gay man. He has a hard time opening up to his parents, who don't seem at all interested in him anyway.
Elliot is also the president of the local chamber of commerce and every year he runs a music festival. When he hears that a neighboring town has pulled the permit on a "hippie" music festival that features greats such as the Greatful Dead and Janice Joplin, Elliot calls the organizers, including hippie businessman Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff), and offer his property. When the producers reject his swampland, Elliot makes a deal with a local dairy farmer Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy) to use his farm in White Lake. Meanwhile, Elliot's parents reluctantly accept the offer, even though the cash payments and potential business would more than enough save the motel. They just don't like the hippies.
While the organizers expect to sell 100,000 tickets, Elliot's callous remarks at a press conference result in what could later be called a "movement": more than half a million people show up. That creates insurmountable chaos for Elliot and the townsfolk and local authorities threaten to shut the whole thing down. Uptight Elliot tries to manage the whole fiasco while figuring out how to come out to his parents. At the end, he can't help but being swept away by the ocean of change as he embraces his identity.
Demetri Martin (Paper Heart) is highly relatable as the befuddled, frustrated young man who is stuck between his dream and his obligations. His conflict is further complicated by his sexuality. There are a few earlier scenes in which Martin adequately portrays the "deer in the headlight" confusion of Elliot. Later in the movie, however, Elliot's role become more of a passive observer and through his sensitive eyes, we get to experience Woodstock all over again for what it really was. As his parents, Henry Goodman (Hooligans) is marvelously defeated and Imelda Staunton (Nanny McPhee) is spectacularly grouchy and sad. The veterans shine in their respective roles but also buoy Martin's performance by creating the incredible relationships among themselves.
The huge ensemble cast (and it's very much an ensemble movie despite the three leads) includes many wonderful actors giving interesting performances. Emile Hirsch (Milk) gets it right by playing a Vietnam vet struggling with post-traumantic syndrome and readjustment. Jonathan Groff (Pretty Handsome) is charismatic (and very calm) as organizer Michael Lang. Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Watchmen) is fine as the man who leads the town against the festival. Eugene Levy (For Your Consideration) is great and loosy-goosy as Max Yasgur. Liev Schreiber (Wolverine) is wonderful playing against type as an ex-Marine drag queen, Vilma. Dan Fogler (Fanboys), meanwhile, plays to his strength as a goofy, artsy theatre actor, and Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood) is marvelous in a cameo as a hippie who introduces Elliot to his first LSD trip.
Adapted from Elliot Tiber's autobiographic account of the events, the screenplay by James Schamus (Hulk) -- longtime collaborator of director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain) -- follows a standard coming-of-age structure by focusing on Elliot's journey set against the historic events as they unfold. Schamus spends a minimal amount of time with the exposition before plunging into the main plot. He also streamlines the hows and whys without bogging us down with the actual logistics of the event. It's through Elliot's eyes that we get to experience Woodstock all over (and again for those who were there for real).
Also, most of the characters in the story are transient in that they're part of Elliot's story, but it also doesn't matter what happens to them. Just as the half-million people who descend onto Elliot's backyard, these people come and go, but they leave a definitive impression and lasting impact on Elliot as well as the audience. Schamus also handles the sexuality as-a-matter-of-factly without underplaying or overplaying it. At times, though, the screenplay loses its focus and wanders a bit, but Schamus is able to pull everything back in and let the story tells itself.
Ang Lee's direction is impeccable. It's simply amazing for any director to so precisely and masterfully recreate the look and feel of late 60s, not to mention the monumental atmosphere of Woodstock itself. It's even more amazing considering Lee was born and raised in Taiwan. The fact that he could deliver such a deeply American story is a testament to his artistry and vision. While giving us a taste of what Woodstock was like and about, he also keeps the story personal. The relationships and friendships are touching. Lee's camera doesn't shy away from the nudity or sexuality, drugs, the profanity as well as the sublime. There are some truly magical scenes during the festival that makes me wish I could have been there.
Well, I'd just have to experience Woodstock vicariously through the documentaries and this fine idiosyncratic film.
Stars: Demetri Martin, Henry Goodman, Imelda Staunton, Emile Hirsch, Jonathan Groff, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Eugene Levy, Liev Schreiber, Dan Fogler, Paul Dano
Director: Ang Lee
Writers: James Schamus (based on Elliot Tiber's book)
MPAA Rating: R for graphic nudity, some sexual content, drug use and language
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Script – 7
Performance – 8
Direction – 9
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 8
Production – 8
Total – 8.2 out of 10