Taking Woodstock

The Ang Lee take on Woodstock never gets much beyond these clichés: hippies took drugs, rain made mud, the music was great and crowds were huge.

Taking Woodstock

Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Demetri Martin, Dan Fogler, Henry Goodman, Jonathan Groff, Eugene Levy, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Imelda Staunton, Emile Hirsch, Liev Schreiber
Rated: R
Studio: Focus Features
Year: 2009
US date: 2009-08-26 (Limited release)
UK date: 2009-11-06 (General release)

It's summer in the Catskills, 1969. The air is hot, the weeds are colorful, the lawn ornaments tacky, and the motels plentiful -- indicated by a clutch of road signs, promising air conditioning or proximity. Revealed in close-ups that may be tender or may be judgmental, these details introduce the central conceit of Taking Woodstock, that the location of the festival was both utterly unready and perfect for the event, at least as that event is recalled through the usual nostalgic haze.

Ang Lee's movie offers more of the same. For Elliot (Demetri Martin), about to be a rebel in spite of himself, the season is looking much as it always has: he has, year after year, returned from his apartment in the city to help his parents run a dinky motel called the El Monaco (yes, the name is redundant, and the place charges a dollar extra for towels). One more time, Elliot is pleading their case to the bank manager, asking for just two more months to avoid foreclosure. The manager is round and pale, Elliot, quite sandwiched between Sonia (Imelda Staunton) and Jake (Henry Goodman), looks at once

Serious about the case he's making and embarrassed -- especially when his mother trots out the story she's told too many times, about her constant victimization and trauma (she "walked all the way from Minsk" to escape the pogroms, etc.), not-so-passively aggressively manipulating anyone worried about looking anti-Semitic. On the way home, when Elliot whispers to Jake that maybe he can urge her to back off the "Nazi stuff," dad shakes his head and slunks along the path to motel office: "Do you think I can tell your mother what to do?"

No, no one tells Sonia what to do, which means this Jewish Mother becomes the butt of the movie's most banal joking, a stereotype that's tragic, comic, and exasperating. Bossy and self-centered, judgmental and mean, Sonia totters on her support-hosed legs, shaking her finger at guests and peering through her pointy glasses at her husband until he does what she wants done. Not falling far from the tree, Elliot also does what's expected, again giving up his dream of moving to San Francisco or even pursuing his own ambitions as an artist, in order to clean rooms and paint signs ("Swim at your own risk"). His sketchy background includes a we're-so-clever exchange with his urbanite sister, adamantly removed from the motel, and a brief phone conversation indicating his gayness, a secret he keeps from his parents until he can't, at which point Jake is fine with it. And still, Sonia will never know.

As annoying as it is that Sonia exists primarily to give Elliot's insurgence a focus, she is only one shortcut among many in Taking Woodstock. These include the premise, that, according to the fantasy of the film and much "history," Woodstock changes everything. Elliot's part is crucial (the film is inspired by his "true story," for sale as his memoir, under the name Elliot Tiber). Acting as chairman of the town council, he grants the beatific Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) a permit to hold a music festival, then finds a location as well, Max Yasgur's (Eugene Levy) farm. Suddenly the town is filled with outsiders, building a stage, setting up sound equipment, and taking all kinds of drugs. Locals are at once horrified and grateful: their businesses are all saved by the money -- lots of it, in cash -- and yet the "kids" are so vexing strange!

The movie never gets much beyond these clichés: hippies took drugs, rain made mud, the music was great and crowds were huge. Not much in the way of complication or investigation here. Elliot's encounters with colorful and completely recognizable types structure the summer of love narrative: he finds pleasures with the traumatized Vietnam war veteran Billy (Emile Hirsch) and the theatrical troupe (led by Devon [Dan Fogler]) who live and rehearse in his parents' barn (and who also rock the pre-party event by stripping naked on stage, horrifying locals). A whole new world is opened to him by sexy trippers in a colorful VW bus (Paul Dano and Kelli Garner) and the hairy-chested transvestite ex-marine Vilma (Liev Schreiber), who offers to work security at the motel, not to mention sage advice and observations on cue.

The focus on Elliot's family proves less insightful or poignant than broadly cartoonish, and his journey is rendered in a too-obvious metaphor: he never makes it to the actual concert, but slogs through mud and flowers and multitudes of most excellent kids, only to come to a new self-understanding.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Hitchcock, 'Psycho', and '78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene'

Alfred Hitchock and Janet Leigh on the set of Psycho (courtesy of Dogwoof)

"... [Psycho] broke every taboo you could possibly think of, it reinvented the language of film and revolutionised what you could do with a story on a very precise level. It also fundamentally and profoundly changed the ritual of movie going," says 78/52 director, Alexandre O. Philippe.

The title of Alexandre O. Philippe's 78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene (2017) denotes the 78 set-ups and the 52 cuts across a full week of shooting for Psycho's (1960) famous shower scene. Known for The People vs. George Lucas (2010), The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus (2012) and Doc of the Dead (2014), Philippe's exploration of a singular moment is a conversational one, featuring interviews with Walter Murch, Peter Bogdanovich, Guillermo del Toro, Jamie Lee Curtis, Osgood Perkins, Danny Elfman, Eli Roth, Elijah Wood, Bret Easton Ellis, Karyn Kusama, Neil Marshall, Richard Stanley and Marli Renfro, body double for Janet Leigh.

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.

20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta

Keep reading... Show less

Composer Michael Vincent Waller just keeps on writing, even when trying to settle on instrument arrangements.

When New York composer Michael Vincent Waller began recording his works, he turned to his solo piano works. He hit us the following year with a double album full of a variety of chamber music arrangements. With Trajectories, Waller walks it back to solo piano and piano/cello duets. The ensemble format may have shrunk from The South Shore, but the scope of Michael Vincent Waller's work certainly hasn't. Trajectories is nearly 77 minutes in length and uses each bar of music for full minimal effect.

Keep reading... Show less

Roswell Rudd, ailing from cancer at 82, releases a loving quartet record of standards with collaborators as distinctive as he is.

The first song on Embrace is "Something to Live For", the exquisite Billy Strayhorn composition that was purportedly Ella Fitzgerald's favorite. What better melody and lyrics to kick off a tender, expressive, intimate date of eight standards, led by the wondrous trombonist Roswell Rudd. Singer Fay Victor brings a sympathetic wisdom to every song, and pianist Lafayette Harris and bassist Ken Filiano are an ideal rhythm section. No drums. Less is more. But there is much here.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.