'Taking Woodstock': Bystanders At The Revolution

Ang Lee's film focuses not on the 1969 music festival itself, but on one of the people whose lives were changed by it: Elliot Teichberg, a closeted gay man who offered up his parents' decrepit motel as a home base for the festival's producers. David Edelstein reviews.

DAVE DAVIES, host:

Yet another event to mark the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock music festival is director Ang Lee's new film, "Taking Woodstock." Set in White Lake and Bethel, New York, it's based on a 2006 memoir by Elliot Tiber who had a front-row seat - not at the concert itself, but at negotiations that led up to it. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: Ang Lee's last film was called, "Lust Caution," which is an apt description of the play in all his work between yielding to messy feeling and exercising discipline, holding back. He's among the last directors I'd think of for a movie about the 1969 Woodstock festival, which was, at least in the popular imagination, all yielding and no holding back. But it's easy to see why Elliot Tiber's temperate memoir, "Taking Woodstock," caught his fancy. Tiber, born Teichberg, was a closeted, young gay man, an heir to a seedy, debt-ridden Catskills motel. When the proposed festival was expelled from several small New York towns whose elders feared a glut of filthy, nasty hippies, Tiber saw an opportunity and contacted its planners.

He found them a spot at Max Yasgur's nearby farm. His parents' motel became a planning hub and well, by the time Joni Mitchell got to Woodstock, they were all stardust and golden. Lee and his producer and screenwriter, James Schamus, have made a film that's gentle and rather tepid. It's pleasant, but over its two plus hours, it doesn't build up much counter-culture fervor. Lee always seems like a visitor to whatever milieu he's depicting: ancient China, the old West, the hippie-dippie '60s. And he brings a cool, cerebral eye to a setting that cries out for the hustle of a Robert Altman movie.

Most of the emotional weight in "Taking Woodstock" is on transactions, like this one for motel rooms between Demetri Martin as Tiber(ph) and Jonathan Groff as organizer Michael Lang in a vest with no shirt, looking like a scrubbed hippie Adonis from a stock company production of "Godspell."

(Soundbite of movie, "Taking Woodstock")

Mr. JONATHAN GROFF (Actor): (as Michael Lang) You know, we're going to need a place for people to crash while we prepare the festival. Your place looks pretty cool. How many vacant rooms do you have for the next couple of weeks?

Mr. DEMETRI MARTIN: (Actor): (as Elliot Teichberg) Well, it depends on how you define room.

Mr. GROFF: (as Michael Lang) You know, how many people can crash with you, what do you guys charge?

Mr. MARTIN: (as Elliot Teichberg) Let's see, it's $8 a night, but that can be for doubles. And we have a weekly discount of course, plus the cabins, you can get cots so four people per - about a 150 I'd say, you can get about 200 people.

Mr. GROFF: (as Michael Lang) Hey man, let's make it easy. Why don't we just buy the El Monaco out for the season? Figure out the costs, write it down, we'll take a look at. But if we don't use all the rooms, you can rent out the free ones. We need to keep some clean up crews around afterwards and if you've got some bigger spaces for offices, that kind of thing, we need to put in some phones and have some space to park vehicles. You know where we're going?

EDELSTEIN: Part, but by no means all the problem with "Taking Woodstock" is Demetri Martin. On his Comedy Central show, he's a deadpan genius, dropping one-liners that seem to come from the dark side of the moon, yet illuminate everything. But the part of Elliot Tiber(ph) taps nothing except his bland ingenuousness, and he ends up a dull bystander. In his memoir, Tiber doesn't have a sparkling personality either, but early chapters detail the pain of being in the closet, and reveal he was at the Stonewall bar in Greenwich Village the night of the police raid. Imagine throwing rocks at police at Stonewall and then grooving at Woodstock. You'll have to imagine. There's no hint of that side of Tiber(ph) onscreen.

The other characters leave you just as indifferent — even Emile Hirsch as a traumatized Vietnam vet and Liev Schreiber as a giant transvestite named Vilma, who becomes the motel's director of security. Schreiber goes against the grain and plays Vilma straight and matter of fact. But the movie needs more loopiness, more risk-taking. Well, there is one vivid performance - the British actress Imelda Staunton, fresh from her turn as "Harry Potter's" most sadistic instructor, as Tiber's monstrous, penny-pinching Jewish hysteric of a matriarch. Watching Staunton's high-pitched Yiddish accented rants, you don't know where to look. She's amazing and awful. Her stylized performance is in a different key than everyone else's.

The experience of Woodstock inspired Tiber to leave his parents and embrace his sexuality. But onscreen, it's studied, as if the director were an android reproducing transcendence without experiencing it. There is one evocative moment, when Tiber(ph) hears the first stirrings of the concert through the trees - thrilling yet ghostly. But the show itself is never glimpsed. Sure, Tiber was busy at the motel and the filmmakers couldn't afford half a million extras, but seeing nothing is a bummer, man. The sheer scale of Woodstock is central to its place in history.

The movie ends with motel leave takings and an illusion to the groovy next fest at Altamont. What a cynical way to cap things off. "Taking Woodstock" is a celebration that feels like a dirge.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.

For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

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