Lee offers different look at Woodstock

Wednesday, August 26, 2009 at 11:45pm

If you’re looking for either a cinematic window into the numerous great musical things that occurred 40 years ago at Woodstock or another examination and portrait of its impact, Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, which opens Friday, probably won’t prove satisfactory.

The music gets referenced as an aside, though there are snippets throughout the movie, and the accompanying soundtrack has ample performances including a great new version of “Freedom” by Richie Havens, the artist whose opening set galvanized the crowd and launched the festival.

Instead, Ang Lee has focused on the memories, encounters and experiences of Elliot Tiber, a Greenwich Village interior designer whose parents owned a small, rather rundown motel in the Catskills. Tiber, whose book Taking Woodstock, A True Story of a Riot, A Concert and A Life (co-written with Tom Monte) comprises the film’s source material, had the only musical festival permit available in the town of Bethel, N.Y., in 1969. His decision to offer it to the Woodstock organizers after they’d previously been rejected elsewhere was certainly an important historical moment.

But if that were Lee’s major focus, this would be a rather brief work. Instead, that’s the backdrop. The major storyline covers Tiber’s (Demetri Martin) gradual evolution from an uncertain, introspective type having an affair with a closeted married man (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) into an emotionally tougher, more confident individual who ultimately figures out he’s been undervalued and basically used almost his entire life, especially by a dominating mother (Imelda Staunton) and an undependable father (Henry Goodman).

The early sections show the family motel, a struggling dump in the Catskills. It’s facing foreclosure, and the only one in the family besides his mother that seems to care is Tiber. He ignores suggestions from other friends and family members to abandon the enterprise and tries to remain an active member in the town’s affairs, though those are even more jumbled and confused.

Then Tiber hears about the Woodstock event, and its problems getting a festival permit. He decides to become the festival’s champion, along with Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy), who faces down his neighbors and allows his property to be used as the site of what turns out to be the most important musical festival of its day. It’s also the locale for newfound ways of self-expression in everything from clothing to hairstyles — and especially sexuality. During the days leading up to Woodstock, Tiber meets a transvestite named Vilma (in a brilliant performance from Liev Schreiber), who also helps change his views on many things, especially his own situation.

As usual, Lee does an impressive job of visually telling the story and documenting the changes in these people’s lives. When Tiber finally discovers the degree of his mother’s deception, the look on his face perfectly depicts the disappointment and hurt he feels. There are also some excellent supporting turns and cameos, particularly Jonathan Groff as Woodstock organizer Michael Lang.

There are so many Woodstock volumes and reissues available that those who want or prefer to know the story from another angle can certainly find something that suits them. Taking Woodstock clearly tells an evocative and important story. It’s just not necessarily the most important one connected to the event.

Taking Woodstock
Directed by: Ang Lee
Written by: James Schamus, Elliot Tiber, Tom Monte (Tiber and Monte co-wrote source book Taking Woodstock, A True Story of a Riot, a Concert and a Life)
Starring: Henry Goodman, Imelda Staunton, Demetri Martin, Kevin Chamberlain, Liev Schreiber, Jonathan Groff, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Edward Hibbert
Time: 120 minutes
Rating: R
Our view: A first-rate presentation of Elliot Tiber, his role in Woodstock and involvement in America’s changing views on gay life and culture, though that’s not necessarily the way to also show what happened at Woodstock or why it’s important.