Starring: Demetri Martin, Henry Goodman, Imelda Staunton, Eugene Levy, Emile Hirsch and Liev Schreiber
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Runtime: 120 mins. Reviewed in Nov 2011
Ang Lee always surprises: great Chinese films, Jane Austen adaptation, graphic novel and a survey of US society and culture from the Civil War (Ride with the Devil) to specialist films about the 1960s and 1970s (The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain and now, Taking Woodstock).
2009 is the 40th anniversary of the momentous cultural (and counter-cultural) event which drew half a million Americans to a concert where the stars of the time played and hippiedom reached its peak. The first television interview this reviewer ever did was in 1970, talking with director Michael Wadleigh about his cinema covering of the event, Woodstock.
What has Woodstock to say to audiences in the West today? What does Ang Lee think and James Schamus the writer of this film and several other Lee films?
For those over 60, it is a memoir, a nostalgia trip (for or against), a reminder that there were causes in those days, that the 1960s saw some of the
greatest changes in the way we behaved and thought. It was the time of the Vietnam War and what that did to the consciousness of the United States. It was Richard Nixon’s first year as president, the year after student riots in Paris and other European cities, of the Russian spring invasion of Prague, of the Catholic Church’s encyclical letter on birth control. Midnight Cowboy won the Oscar for 1969. The times were definitely a-changing and the flower-power movement and similar stances for free love, for drug induced states, for protest, for same-sex relationships. Much is taken for granted now. And the question always rises: what are the movements now, what are the causes, and do they generate the enthusiasm and energy these days that they should?
Are young people today as liberated as they think they are? Do they take causes to heart as they might? There was hedonism then. How does it compare to the more knowing and self-indulgently affluent hedonism now?
Which are questions for the under 20s who may be made aware through this film of stances of their parents and grandparents.
This story takes in the concert, but at a distance. It is interested in the more personal story of the family that took on the project and the locals who let out the land – and all the consequences, the 500,000 who came, the attitudes and behaviours, the logistics for control and security, for food and drink, for hygiene facilities, the rain and the mud.
At the centre is a young man who is trying to help his parents run a run-down motel. The screenplay spends a lot of time on his story. He is well played by Demetri Martin and his parents by British Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton (doing a caricature of a Jewish mother that demands attention). Also featured are Eugene Levy as the owner of the land, Emile Hirsch as a returned Vietnam veteran with problems and Liev Schreiber as a transvestite security guard.
Very American but brought to life by Ang Lee.
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