I’m a big fan of Ang Lee, the Taiwan-born director of such terrific films as “The Wedding Banquet,” “Eat Drink Man Woman,” “Sense and Sensibility,” “The Ice Storm,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Brokeback Mountain.”
He glides effortlessly between cultures, putting Chinese values to celluloid in one movie and reflecting America in the next. He also switches genres easily, from comedy to period pieces to drama to action.
He’s had one certifiable dud in my opinion: his take on “The Hulk.” Now, I think there are two.
Erin and I were sadly disappointed when we went to see “Taking Woodstock,” Lee’s take on the 1969 music festival that stands today as an iconic milestone of the rock era and baby boom generation.
It’s a nostalgic look back at Woodstock, the rock festival held between Aug. 15-17, 1969 in upstate New York. It’s become iconic of the era because of the 1970 hit documentary film “Woodstock” and Joni Mitchell’s song of the same name (which was a #11 hit for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and a lesser hit version by Mathews Southern Comfort). The song enshrined the number of people who flocked to the three-day concert: “half a million strong,” probably taken from early news reports, but the turnout was probably closer to 300,000. Still an impressive number of attendees for what came to define the rock generation’s tribalist instincts.
Michael Lang riding his motorcycle around the original festival, captured in the “Woodstock” DVD.
Jonathan Groff playing Michael Lang in Ang Lee’s fictionalized Woodstock weekend, along with Mamie Gummer as Tisha and Demetri Martin as Elliott Teichberg.
In Lee’s misty-eyed look back at 40 years ago, all the surfaces are polished just right. In an early scene, the black-and-white TV in young Elliott Teichberg’s parents’ rundown motel in White Lake, a hamlet in the town of Bethel, New York, shows the July 20, 1969 Apollo moon landing, just a few weeks before the big rock show. The characters have the right hair, the right clothes, even the right hats (check out the mysterious and pointless character Tisha, and the woman who’s captured in Woodstock documentary footage with the real Michael Lang). The cars, of course, are spot-on from that model year and before, right down to the hippie-decorated VW vans.
Lee even includes several signature shots from the Woodstock doc, with his fictionalized spin. As Jake rides with a motorcycle cop through the traffic jam to get to the concert site, they pass a group of nuns who are being filmed by “Woodstock” director Michael Wadleigh’s crew and one nun flashes a peace sign. Later, Elliott walks past a row of porta-potties where a film crew is interviewing the guy who’s cleaning them out. He also spends some time sliding in the mud, another re-creation of a classic scene from the concert. These touchstone scenes from the original movie are fun to catch in the context of Lee’s movie.
What’s completely missing from “Taking Woodstock” is an understanding of and appreciation for — hell, even baldfaced nostalgia for — the music that drew the hundreds of thousands to the festival in the first place.
Former Oingo Boingo mastermind Danny Elfman does a yeoman’s job noodling around in period styles with his background music, but it takes a good half an hour into the movie before any real rock of the day is heard: “Maggie McGill” by the Doors, a group that didn’t perform at Woodstock. Yeah, the Grateful Dead follow on the soundtrack, but what’s even weirder is the absolute lack of any rock and roll noise until this point in the film, when zillions of kids are walking past the Teichbergs’ hotel because the road is already clogged with abandoned cars.
Tens of thousands of young people — and not a single AM radio blaring? No FM signals? No radios in the scenes leading up to the festival, when young Teichberg (the head of the local chamber of commerce) is in his parents’ motel lobby, or in the local diner (where everyone ends up hating him for bringing the damn concert to town)? No fast-talking radio DJs, no stoned-out FM jocks, no station jingles? This is like making a biopic of Mozart’s life and somehow managing to leave out the music for the first third.
Now, I realize this may have been Lee’s attempt at forcing a point: That this movie isn’t about the music, but instead the coming-of-age story of a young man growing up in a dysfunctional Jewish family in the late ’60s. So by leaving out the pop culture and music, we’re left to focus on Elliott’s entrepreneurial decision to invite the promoters of the Woodstock concert from Woodstock, the original town, to Bethel because the good folks in Woodstock freaked out at the possibility of even a hundred thousand hippies thumbing their way from everywhere.
Elliott, trying to forge a life as an artist in New York City and who’s doing a crappy job hiding his homosexuality while handling his folks’ finances out of familial obligation, sees the rock concert as an opportunity to bring young people to the dying Catskill resort region. As head of the chamber, he holds the permit that clears the way for the concert.
Not surprisingly, in the days before the concert, as his family’s motel becomes HQ for the promoters and the masses of support crew, Elliott finds himself attracted to a handsome construction worker. In a surprisingly cheesy move from the director who brought us “Brokeback Mountain,” you know what’s going to happen because they bond over a Judy Garland recording. The Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village, which sparked the gay rights movement, had just occured a month earlier in June of ’69.
During the weekend, Elliott never quite makes it to see the music. He gets waylaid by a couple who offers him some acid (he loses his virginity all sorts of ways during the movie) and spends all night tripping in their van. By the time he makes it to the stage it’s all over, and volunteers are combing the trampled fields picking up the garbage.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that there wasn’t enough of a story to make for a good movie, even with Ang Lee’s eye for visuals and usual penchant for character development. The script is based on the autobiography of the real-life Elliott Teichberg, and I haven’t read it — maybe it’s more interesting than what made it into the movie. Maybe a ton of the footage that could give the film heft got left on the cutting room floor (or rather, on the hard drive).
The movie also includes a couple of distractions that don’t make much sense (again, they’re probably in the autobiography): a wacked-out theater troupe that strips naked during a “performance” in front of townies, and Liev Schreiber in a funny but wasted role as a transexual security guard. They seem to be tossed in to liven up the proceedings because there ain’t much else going on without them.
In the end, some of the music from Woodstock bleeds into “Taking Woodstock” as background echoes from the stage as Elliott wanders about the landscape, and some other period music makes for a decent little soundtrack CD.
But without the music front and center, there isn’t a center that holds this movie together.
For that reason, it’s worth renting the Director’s Cut DVD version of the original “Woodstock.” I bought an obnoxiously-packaged version from Costco that came in a jewel-box wrapped in suede fringe and included a dumb commemorative paperweight. The documentary was truly groundbreaking at the time, with its use of special hand-held cameras and split-screen editing (a technique that Lee uses to evoke the 1969 grooviness). The scenes with the nun flashing the peace sign, the guy cleaning the toilets and the kids slipping and sliding in the mud, as well as more nudity than the original three-hour theatrical releases, all evoke the moment like a moving snapshot of those days in 1969.
The cynical might scoff at the canonization and iconification of Woodstock, and point to the fall of the Aquarian dream just six months later at the Altamont rock festival when a man was stabbed to death in front of the stage while the Rolling Stones played “Sympathy for the Devil” — which Lee makes reference to at the very end of “Taking Woodstock.”
Sure, the hippie thing was just… a thing. But it had some cosmic earnestness at its heart. And, a whole lot of music, both great and fatuous. The original “Woodstock” had a little of both — Alvin Lee and Ten Years after still comes to mind for the mind-numbing boringness of its electric guitar boogieing. But geez, the segments with Sly and the Family Stone, the Who, Santana (whose first album hadn’t even been released), Jimi Hendrix’s fabled performance and “Star Spangled Banner” outro, and even Crosby Stills and Nash’s debut, in which they admit to being “scared shitless,” are all priceless.
The DVD’s extras includes the expected interviews with anyone who was involved in the project, and second disc includes more interviews (some interesting and worthwhile) plus a whole bunch of extra musical footage, from more Who to Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Dead (both bands that everyone wonders why they were left off the original movie), though nothing from the Band. There are some yawners — Mountain is good in small doses, for instance.
But the “Woodstock” DVD remains a cultural milestone that’s worth watching and celebrating on those big anniversary dates. Just wait for the hype for the 50th.
My suggestion for the next re-release of the “Woodstock” DVD: make “Taking Woodstock” part of the extras. It’s a nice enough movie on its own, but it’ll make more sense, and be better appreciated, when it’s seen in the context of the music that was the reason for Woodstock in the first place.
I have one last observation and question about both “Woodstock” and “Taking Woodstock”: Where are the Asian faces? Were all Asian Americans stuck in their summer school class books when Woodstock happened? Were Asian Americans not rock and roll fans? I was — though I was only 11. If I were college age, I would have trekked up to the concert….
Hmmm, maybe not. Those damned Asian American values are welling up, even now. My parents. I was square. I was a nerd student. I was the model minority. Listen to long-haired rock music for three days? Get naked, do drugs and roll around in the mud? Be cold, hot miserable and hungry, bath in a pond and use public toilets with 300,000 strangers? Uh… no thanks.
Still, it bothers me that no Asian faces seemed to be part of the counter-cultural spirit of the times. What’s with that?