Lee, Schamus Go for Subtlety In Movie 'Taking Woodstock'

Photo: Motorcycle diaries. Jonathan Groff plays Michael Lang and Demetri Martin stars as Elliot Teichberg in director Ang Lee and screenwriter James Schamus' work 'Taking Woodstock.'
Ken Regan, Focus Features/Courtesy
Motorcycle diaries. Jonathan Groff plays Michael Lang and Demetri Martin stars as Elliot Teichberg in director Ang Lee and screenwriter James Schamus' work 'Taking Woodstock.'

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It would seem impossible to tell a tale that is set in 1969, focus on the counterculture and yet, somehow, do all this with subtlety. Nothing from that year (or the cultural revolution it embodied) was subtle. Keep in mind this was a time when longhairs lit bongs in the street, when yippies staged "fuck-ins" (essentially, galas for public fornication) and when rock 'n' roll gods chugged Jack Daniels on stage while pretending to hump their instrument of choice. Shocking, yes. Subtle, no.

Perhaps that's why Ang Lee's recent look at those psychedelic times, "Taking Woodstock," is such a surprisingly not-shocking (that is, shockingly subtle) take on the late 1960s.

Lee tells the tale of a young man, Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin), who unintentionally hosts Woodstock in his own backyard in the Catskills of New York. However, Lee does not rely on or even heavily use commonly understood stereotypes or motifs of the '60s. Instead, he sets the stage with lingering shots of placid landscapes and restrained character relations to tell this true story of one man's minor role in such a major time in our cultural history.

We meet Teichberg as he returns home to his small, sheltered town from New York City in order to bail his parents and their motel out of financial crisis. Once home, he is forced to suppress both his homosexuality and desire for a more liberated lifestyle. Martin, who is a weekly staple on Comedy Central, is a surprising pick to play the much-repressed Elliot. Yet despite his comedic background, Martin excels in approaching his character with a subtle nuance, acting not as a comedian in the spotlight but more a blank canvas to foil the more eccentric characters who bring psychedelia upstate.

Teichberg forms an odd-ball posse among a few of the longhairs who invade his Catskills home, including a deep-thinking concert producer Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff), a cross-dressing ex-Marine turned concert security manager named Vilma (Liev Schreiber) and a sporadically brain-fried Vietnam veteran, Billy (Emile Hirsch). Lang enters each scene inexplicably shirtless or on horseback. Vilma, in fishnets and combat boots, acts as an unconventional fairy godmother to Elliot. And Billy often gets tangled in an imaginary battle against figments of his imagination. Yet despite their enjoyable idiosyncrasies (which add much-needed lightness and laughs to the script), they do not steal Teichberg's quiet thunder. Peppered with humor, the film is still very much a movie about his transformation.

Adapted from the real life Elliot Tiber's memoir "Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert, and a Life," screenwriter James Schamus chose not to focus on the riot or concert aspects. In fact, very little music is involved in the film. Though we know (through name dropping) that icons like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix graced the concert's stage, we hear not a single note of their music nor see them backstage. Even the soundtrack lacks any notable rock ballads from that era and is instead comprised of a calming score seemingly unfit for a movie about a rock concert.

But then again, this isn't really a film about a rock concert. The focus of this script and the subtle direction of Ang Lee together explore not the radical effect that the '60s had on one nation but more the quiet liberation of one man-not the miniscule effect he had on one iconic concert but the effect that the iconic concert had on him. And ironically, however low-voltage the film may be, it is, above all, entirely new.

Listen to 'Electric Ladyland' with Maggie at [email protected]

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