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USA 2009
Directed by
Ang Lee
115 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
4 stars

Taking Woodstock

Synopsis:. Elliott Teichberg (Demetri Martin) is the son of Jewish WW2 survivors. He is a gay interior designer who is helping his parents out in a run-down motel in the Catskills. Jake (Henry Goodman) and Sonia (Imelda Staunton) are about to be foreclosed by the bank when Elliott stumbles upon an idea. A planned music festival has lost its nearby venue, so Elliott liaises with organisers to enable the festival to take place upon the farm of neighbour Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy). Not only does the festival make a profound change in the lives of Elliott and his family but it leaves its indelible mark upon the world and a generation. That festival is Woodstock.

Hippies, flower children and baby boomers rejoice! Ang Lee’s latest film captures the spirit of the era brilliantly, with humour, music and a wonderful plot that looks at this seminal time through the eyes of the true-life memoirs of Elliot in his book 'Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, A Concert, and A Life'. It captures a large experience through the microcosm of the smaller experience of a local community and especially the life of one family. Those expecting a concert will be disappointed – this was already done in the 1970 Oscar-winning film Woodstock. This account is far more personal.

Ang Lee here he proves again his versatility with genres and his ability to get brilliant performances out of his actors. Newcomer Martin invests Elliot with genuine humour, and makes us believe that Woodstock for him was the turning point in his life as he comes to terms with a new freedom in his gay identity. Staunton is almost unrecognizable as Sonia, who starts out as aparanoid curmudgeon, running the motel in a penny-pinching way, and seemingly leading a joyless li fe. Her long-suffering husband Jake is a marvellous foil for her, and even they will undergo massive transformation as the Woodstock juggernaut descends upon their modest motel. Not only does freedom come to Elliott but also to his parents in one notably joyous scene. In fact joyousness is present in much of this film – there is no cynicism and the '60s decade is honoured in the somewhat idealized way that it is usually presented. Allusions to Vietnam, and the Moon missions pepper the background, but Woodstock and the peace generation are front and centre.

Some lesser roles are a delight to watch. Emile Hirsch plays Billy, a Vietnam vet who is suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, while Liev Schreiber puts in a glorious and brave turn as Vilma, a cross-dressing Marine responsible for security at Max’s farm. Eugene Levy best known for the hit teen comedy American Pie is thankfully a totally different character here as Max whilst event organiser Michael Lang encapsulates a real hippy vibe and even tiny roles such as an acid-dropping couple in a Kombie van (Kelly Garner & Paul Dano) are so well played you’d think you’ve entered a time warp!

Lee obviously has a real passion for detail seen in the clothing and cars, and in the scenes which recreate the vast tent city that sprang up, with the mud, free food, drugs and magical atmosphere. He makes effective use of split screen, which I usually dislike, but here it serves to give a sense of the scale of the event, as contrasted with the intimate experiences of the individuals involved.

Taking Woodstock is such a life-affirming film capturing the free spirit of a time that those who lived through it seem to endlessly hanker after. As one of them I loved it.




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