Taking Woodstock has the feel of a rather sweet little independent film, peopled as it is with lead actors who are largely unknown, and well-known actors playing much less prominent roles. However, this film, based on the true story of Elliot Taber (about whom more later), is a surprising departure for director Ang Lee, the mind behind Sense & Sensibility; The Ice Storm; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Hulk (yes, the broccoli-green comic book hero!); and Brokeback Mountain. Lee has won well-deserved awards for his work, but paradoxically, the one thing that these films have in common is that they have almost nothing in common! These are not films of the Merchant-Ivory ilk, recognisable by their lush cinematography or period sets – and yet, what is clear again with Taking Woodstock is that when Ang Lee and producer James Schamus collaborate, wonderful things are likely to happen. Schamus worked with Lee on all these films (and others), and no matter how disparate the subject matter, they seem to have a shared vision of what makes a film not only good, but also engaging for its audience.
Although the cast includes a few people well-known to movie-goers (Liev Schreiber as a cross-dressing former marine turned security guard, and Into the Wild’s Emile Hirsch), they were not the draw for me. Even 40 years later, a movie about Woodstock doesn’t seem to need big-marquee names. This is not to say that the rest of the cast is entirely unknown – only that the strength of their work may like somewhere other than feature films. Take Jonathan Groff, for instance, who plays the fuzzy (literally and personality!) Michael Lang, one of Woodstock’s promoters. Viewers of TV soap One Life to Live may remember his multi-episode spin as a young man whose life truly did spin out of control as he died of a drug-induced heart attack at the wheel of a speeding car. Groff has also played Broadway and was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actor for Spring Awakening in 2007. We’re never altogether certain that his Michael Lang is not under the influence (the drugs of choice here seem to be marijuana and LSD) – he seems pretty blissed-out most of the time and maintains a preternatural serenity in the face of glitches that would likely have the rest of us pulling our hair (ours or someone else’s!). His beatific smile is almost transcendent.
Then there’s Michael’s girlfriend (or is she?), the lovely Tischa, who with her long, straight hair and floppy red hat is the epitome of a Woodstock hippie. She doesn’t say a lot, and it’s not altogether clear what her function is here, but she has a presence even in this peripheral role that adds something to the film. Could we expect any less from Meryl Streep’s daughter (with sculptor Don Gummer)? I wasn’t certain until I read the credits at the end of the film, but even looking at her eyes and nose under the brim of that floppy hat, I thought “Streep!” – and indeed, Mamie Gummer demonstrates that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. Gummer is at the beginning of her career and hasn’t done a lot just yet, though you may be familiar with her from the film Stop-Loss, about the redeployment of American veterans to Iraq when they expected to be going home; or as Sally Smith Adams, her character in a three-episode arc of the TV mini-series John Adams.
These characters are all graceful foils to Demetri Martin’s Elliot Tiber. From a casting perspective, Martin is probably the greatest surprise of all – this New Jersey born and bred son of a Greek Orthodox priest and a nutritionist attended Yale University and NYU School of Law on a full scholarship. He has not previously been recognised for his acting ability – in fact, he has been a stand-up comedian of some repute, and other than TV roles in which he plays himself doing comedy, his resume consists overwhelmingly of writing gigs, both for himself and others. According to interviews, director Ang Lee felt that Martin had the right ‘look’ to play Tiber, and he’s believable enough in the role, playing it with the kind of innocence that we’ve come to expect of movies about this era. Still, as sweet as he is, Martin’s role doesn’t require a great dramatic stretch – he’s pretty calm, just a nice guy trying to make the best of life, who stumbles into something that turns out to be the defining moment for an entire generation.
If it’s acting you want, you owe it to yourself to see this movie if only to check out the incomparable Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake), one of the finest character actors of her (or any other) generation. She plays Elliot’s mother, Sonia Tiber, and initially, I worried that the performance would be a bit over-the-top, a caricature of the Jewish mother stereotype. The Tibers are Russian Jews who immigrated to the United States by ‘walking through snowdrifts 20 feet high through Siberia,’ according to Mrs. Tiber. She is irascible, prejudiced, and astonishingly stingy: there’s a scene in which she sniffs bedsheets that Elliot has taken off a bed at their motel and plans to replace with clean ones. “They’re fine!” his mother shouts. “They didn’t even do anything on them! The water! The soap! The electricity! Put them back!” The sheets don’t get changed. But I digress. Staunton’s role really isn’t all about her meanness, and an evident inability to demonstrate love to either her husband or her son – or even the daughter from whom she is estranged who makes one brief appearance in the film. Sonia Tiber has lived a kind of a half-life, too frightened (though we’re never sure of what) to live with joy. There’s a mad moment near the end of the movie – and I won’t describe it here, because it has to be seen to be believed – that will adjust the focus of her character, so to speak, and allow you to see her as much more than the caricature she seemed at first.
Liev Schreiber, another Hollywood heavyweight (well, at least middleweight!), shows up as a cross-dressing US Marine. Semper Fi that, you macho men! In his first appearance, he’s wearing a lovely pink dress – and frankly, the lack of breasts aside, it looks pretty darned good on him! What tiny hips the man has! His character’s name is Vilma, and he plays her straight (no pun intended) – what I mean is that he’s not, by any stretch, a drag queen here. Except for the fact that you know he’s a man, he plays it with the tenderness you might expect from a woman. It’s a curious role for an actor who has appeared in both X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Defiance, but he carries it beautifully.
What is missing from this film? The music. There’s just not much music. How can someone make a film about Woodstock without the music, for cryin’ out loud? Oh, sure, we hear little bits and pieces – Country Joe McDonald’s Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die, but none of the seminal music we associate with Woodstock. There are no impersonators visible even from a distance who are meant to be Janis Joplin, or Jimi Hendrix. But although I went to the film expecting to hear the Woodstock music, it wasn’t until the film ended that I realised there had been such a paucity of these tunes that embraced a generation. Really, I missed them more afterwards, because during, I was too busy enjoying the film to notice!