Taking Woodstock

From Sept ’09 Spotlight: Taking Woodstock, a new film by Ang Lee timed to the recent 40th anniversary, is based on a memoir of the same name by Elliot Tiber, and it’s a first person story about someone who primarily participated behind-the-scenes in the now legendary three-day music festival. Elliot is the son of Jake and Sonia Teichberg, first-generation immigrants who own a rundown motel on the edge of the Borscht Belt. The action begins when Elliot learns that concert promoter Michael Lang, a childhood buddy from Brooklyn, has been booted out of the real Woodstock (a town in upstate New York), and is searching for a new site. Elliot connects Michael with dairy farmer Max Yasgur, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Lee expertly evokes the era, treating the concerns of local residents with respect as hordes of young people in hippy garb descend on their peaceful little town. He doesn’t make a big point of it, but he does show that almost all of the pro-Woodstock participants (Lang, Tiber, Yasgur, etc) were Jewish, and this leads to some anti-Semitic incidents. Mostly, though, Lee plays the Jewish elements as comedy.

Demetri Martin does a good job in the center as Elliot, but the film belongs to its supporting players. Liev Schreiber (as an ex-Marine turned security guard), Emile Hirsch (as a Vietnam vet), and Eugene Levy (as Max Yasgur) are all excellent, but the standout is young Jonathan Groff as Michael. I saw the real Michael Lang on Book TV after seeing the film, and Groff embodies his laid-back intensity so well it’s almost eerie.

Unfortunately Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton are too stereotypical as the Teichbergs, and laughing at their expense leaves a bitter aftertaste. But this is Elliot’s story, and in the end, the film succeeds in showing how a macro event (Woodstock) changed the life of one man (Elliot Tiber) even as it made an indelible impact on his entire generation.

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