Taking Woodstock (2009): Blu-ray

Taking Woodstock

Rated: R
Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Demetri Martin, Dan Fogler, Henry Goodman, Jonathan Groff, Eugene Levy, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Imelda Staunton, Emile Hirsch, Liev Schreiber
Extras: 6
Studio: Focus Features
Year: 2009
US date: 2009-12-15 (General release)
UK date: 2009-12-15 (General release

It is often called the ultimate expression of the Summer of Love, a gathering of nearly half a million like minded individuals, all with the single goal of sharing three days of peace and music. It's also quoted as the yin to the much darker and depressing yang of The Rolling Stones free concert at Altamonte, a mere four month later. Somewhere in between the myth and the memory, the legend and the legitimate issues surrounding its production, Woodstock stands as a symbol, one ripe for constant reevaluation and reconsideration.

So when it was announced that Ang Lee, one of the best interpreters of American cultural nostalgia (his Ice Storm remains a definitive '70s statement), was tackling Eliot Tiber and Tom Monte's book about the backstage dramatics that came with the "happening" on Yasgur's Farm in 1969, it seemed like a perfect fit. Often, it takes an outside perspective to shed new light on something so ingrained in our own historic consciousness. Unfortunately, Taking Woodstock is a trial, not a revelation. It attempts too many things, avoiding the much bigger picture to get much of that August's minutia down pat.

When we first meet Eliot Tiber (a decent Demetri Martin), he is trying to hold on to his parents Catskill's "resort". In truth, it's nothing more than a failing motel with a bunch of hippies/actors living in the barn. As a semi-successful New York interior designer, Eliot has sunk all his income into the business. Instead of gratitude, however, his father (Henry Goodman) ignores him and his mother (Imelda Staunton) smothers him. Hoping to bring some necessary tourism to the area, Eliot prepares for his annual classical music symposium. But when he hears that a rumored rock concert has been kicked out of its local location, he volunteers his town. Soon, the small community of White Lake is overrun with businessmen, promoters, and hippies. You see, Max Yasgur has graciously decided to donate his property to the cause, and now the on-again, off-again Woodstock music festival is back on!

If there is a single moment that is indicative of the few things that are right, and all that is wrong, with Taking Woodstock, it arrives toward the end of the second act. Eliot, desperate to see the concert, heads over to Yasgur's farm to check it out. Along the way, he is stopped by a dreamy young couple (Paul Dano and Kelli Garner) who offer him a tab of acid. Within minutes, our hero is locked in a day-glo hallucination, the vibrant colors inside the hippies' van melding and mixing into a glorious multi-tinted goo. Later, Eliot steps outside and sees the entire Woodstock nation, from small stage to massive throng, undulating like an ocean, ebbing and flowing over the image like a tide that's about to turn.

It's a wonderfully metaphoric moment, as strong a symbol of the event's significance to the '60s as any since Hunter S. Thompson's similarly styled "wave" monologue from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Sadly, it's one of the rarities in a movie that would rather concentrate on quirk and ancillary individuals than anything of real impact or import. Granted, the story is set exclusively backstage, Tiber hoping to show how a little inspiration (and a great deal of communal faith) forged one of the major benchmarks of the counterculture. But without the concert itself, without some idea of what was going on a few miles away, Taking Woodstock misses out.

Lee makes the mistake of believing that everyone is well versed in both the actual three day showcase and the sensational documentary that resulted from it. He constantly riffs on both, reminding us of the post-modern mania of the time through split screen and other cinematic tricks. Yet within that assumption lays the problem. Woodstock is now 40 years old, its attendees moving beyond middle age into the twilight of their years. Several generations removed, it's more of a talking point than a memory. You've got to give the fledgling 18 to 25 year old demo something to groove on, less they find your efforts a confusing trip down one person's singular and insular memory lane. And since Tiber is not that compelling a figure, it's up to the circumstances to carry the day. Unfortunately, they can't.

That doesn't mean that Taking Woodstock is a complete loss. On the contrary, there are times when you sense the subject matter trying to surpass its cinematic presentation for clarity and consideration. When Eliot is confronted by the real figures behind the show, names and faces we've come to recognize, we instantly click with the sequences. Similarly, when our hero takes the long walk to Yasgur's to see the fruits of his scattered labors, there are iconic moments (the peace-sign waving nuns, cops with flowers in their guns) reminding us of our past memories of the movement. But then Lee spends way too much time on supporting situations, like Eliot's lame home life, his latent homosexuality, and a bizarre turn by Liev Schrieber as a cross dressing ex-Marine who becomes Tiber's bodyguard and confident. While trying to signify something, these outside issues instill nothing but nonchalance.

Even the added content on the new Blu-ray disc is underwhelming. Lee is on hand (along with prime suspect and scriptwriter James Schamus) to discuss his intentions, and it all sounds so noble and earnest. Sadly, much of that sentiment is missing from the movie. Similarly, the deleted scenes (including a few exclusive to the updated format) do little to remedy the superfluous nature of the narrative. It's as if, by focusing exclusively on what happened miles away from the actual show, Taking Woodstock hopes to find some hidden message. Instead, it only uncovers what we'd expect from such a limited purview - minor interest and some otherwise unimportant information. Whatever his part in bringing Woodstock to White Lake (and there has been much contention about just how involved he was), Eliot Tiber's story is a novelty, but nothing revelatory. Oddly enough, the movie made of his 'adventures' is even more nondescript.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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