Status: In Competition
I have always admired Ang Lee from a distance- always aware of the prowess of his artistry as a director, but not always attracted to his subject matter, but ever since the early rumours of this project started to break I was gripped. The prospect of a film about something so close to my heart- the festival scene and live music in general- aroused my interest long before it was announced that Taking Woodstock would be playing at Cannes 2009. Im a strong believer that there are several moments in popular musical history that deserved the cinematic treatment- the birth of the Madchester music scene (happily now served by 24 Hour Party People), the Californian musical revolution (some sort of adaptation of Barney Hoskyns’ Hotel California would be a fantastic prospect), the age of the rock journalist (captured by the sublime Almost Famous) and the early days of Woodstock. Thanks to Ang Lee and Taking Woodstock I now have three out of four, and Im just as impressed with it as I am the other two movies I’ve just mentioned. In fact, even more.
Being already pretty well versed on the history of the festival, and the music business in general of the period, I was particularly interested to see how Lee would use the historical detail to furnish his movie, which was always going to follow his humanist trend and focus upon human relationships primarily. One nagging doubt I had was the potential pit-fall of including too many appearances by music legends, what with the infinite scope of the festival’s line-up: I was extremely cautious about the prospect of seeing someone play Hendrix, or Joplin, or The Who, for fear we would have another Watchmen situation on our hand. As much as I loved that film, I found the peripheral appearances of star figures like Bowie merely off-putting and no more than a quirk that detracted from the audience’s focus on the narrative (as much as the pop culture references were crucial to their belief in the authentic alternative 80′s reality). Simply put, I didnt want to spend my time evaluating how close the performances would be to my idols in a film that is ostensibly more about a cultural moment and a group of characters reactions to it and reactions to one another within it than being an ensemble biopic. Happily, the only footage of the festival is extremely peripheral- because Ang Lee chooses to focus upon the immediacy of the human relationships affected by the festival- so the problem never arose.
As much as this film is about Ang Lee’s artistic vision, it is underpinned by some fantastic casting, and excellent performances. Imelda Staunton is brilliant and barely recognisable as Mrs Tiber (a pleasant female quasi-Fagen), the fierce, typically Jewish-Mother style matriarch, and the dynamic between her and her husband- played equally well, but infinitely more understated by Henry Goodman- and their son Elliot is irresistible. Mention must also go to Emile Hirsch as Billy, a returning and damaged Vietnam vet, the excellent, hilarious Liev Schreiber as monolithic-sized transvestite security guard Vilma, and a subtle gently comic turn from Eugene Levy as the land-owning farmer, proving that he isnt necessarily stuck in the American Pie induced talent-vacuum I’ve been suspecting for years.
I have already expressed my initial reservations about the casting of comedian Demitri Martin in the lead role, considering the track record of most comedians who go for their acting wings (my beloved Eddie Izzard aside) and Martin’s super-geek stage persona- but his performance as Elliot Tiber immediately allayed my fears. Martin’s blend of naivety, internal conflict (over the prospect of coming out to his parents) and often inadvertent comedy gives Elliot the kind of soul every sympathetic audience craves (though Lee is careful not to make him a victim), and will probably be the springboard for Martin’s Hollywood career, if he wants it.
As I said, despite the grand context of the story the film is inherently about human relationships, and emotional conflict- Hirsch’s war veteran’s difficult reintegration into normal society, Elliot’s struggle with the reality and validation of his sexuality, and the Tiber family’s general struggle to coexist and understand one another. To set this against the enormous event that was Woodstock ’69, and to have the festival be the means by which each struggle is resolved without ever being an actual screen presence is both hugely brave and bewilderingly good. Ang Lee has always taken a similar approach, making the history or the mythology of a story the secondary concern, with the primary focus trained upon the relationships between characters- even The Incredible Hulk favoured Big Green’s heart and Dr Banner’s conflict over the usual Smash-Em-Up material. No matter what Lee turns his hand to, whether cowboys, Period Drama, superhero summer blockbuster or instant cult fare like Taking Woodstock, you can be sure that the characters and the way they coexist will be immacuately dealt with under his stewardship.
The two defining sequences in the film both focus upon Elliot; the first, a long continuous tracking shot following Elliot up the approach road to the festival (with a hilarious improbable police escort) is a real achievement. While many will point to Atonement’s iconic continuous shot as the defining example of the past few years, Taking Woodstock’s is different fare altogether- for a start it is less noticeable, which is part of its success, and secondly it feels far less set up. It is a more organic sequence, and is more centred upon Elliot’s reactions to his environment than to the environment itself, while Atonement’s was all about the grandeur of the set.
The second is likely to be the most talked about scene of the movie- it is certainly the most provactive, and has already been suggested as slightly superfluous and even obligatory- is the acid trip scene, featuring a pleasant cameo by a chunkier Paul Dano, in which Elliot discovers the multifarious pleasures of the hippies’ best friend. The special effects are a marvel, and Lee stays away from the stereotypical idea of an acid trip in favour of something that I have to say is far more authentic, and all the more affecting for it. In particular the pay-off of the scene, as Elliot and companion look down over the festival, is beautiful, and, although this is likely a controversial thing to say, it made me want to go and drop a tab right away.
Naturally the soundtrack is immense and perfectly keyed to the scenes, without ever becoming as invasive as the Watchmen one did (if you’ll excuse the repeated reference point), which is exactly as a film of this type should be. One of the best examples I have ever seen of a soundtrack that works the same way, framing the narrative perfectly, without working as a plot device- which is too far an influence- is The Wackness; and in the same wayTaking Woodstock uses music as a means to shape the identity of the film, and give it a subtle context without being too overt.
In summation, I believe Lee should walk away with the Palm D’Or, followed by a multitude of other accolades for this wonderful film. For managing to recreate the festival experience immaculately, while also observing the intricacies and idiosyncracie of dysfunctional familial relationships and encouraging such perfect performances even the highest prize of the festival would be scant reward. For those how know me, the very highest accolade of all I can offer is to say it’s better than Almost Famous.