You won’t see Jimi Hendrix. Don’t look for Jefferson Airplane or Wavy Gravy, either. In fact, none of the stars of the much-analyzed 1969 Woodstock Music & Art Fair makes an appearance in Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, either in character or in documentary footage.
It is the canny strategy of director Lee and screenwriter James Schamus to show what happened around the edges of the myth-tinged festival, away from the superstars, where people we’ve never heard of are shown performing their own miniature miracles in the shadow of the big show. In doing so, Lee, Schamus, and their terrific cast paint one of the most organic portraits of the ’60s on screen — easily the most refreshingly original movie of the summer.
It boils down to the fine art of people watching, the number one reason for going to an event like that fabled massive gathering in the first place. Spontaneous entertainment, no script, serendipity, heat lightning in the trees. Lee and Schamus understand that concept in their bones.
Their first task is to make the idea of the granddaddy of all rock fests, the one everybody is sick of hearing about, seem as new and undiscovered as it was in 1969. Taking Woodstock, drawn from the book by Elliot Tiber and Tom Monte, percolates its way down to a personal story, one that illuminates not only the explained-to-death Baby Boomer generation but everyone who’s ever been stuck in a time or place in life when the only thing that matters is taking the next step, any step.
Elliot Teichberg (beautifully played by Demetri Martin) is ready to take that step. Interior decorator Elliot has decamped from Greenwich Village to El Monaco, his aging Jewish immigrant parents’ ramshackle “resort” in the Catskills village of White Lake, New York. The issue of Elliot’s gayness — he hasn’t yet come out to his parents — has been back-burnered for the dilemma of what to do about his folks. Dad (veteran character actor Henry Goodman) is a roofer by trade, an old-country fix-it man, while Mom (Imelda Staunton, awesomely award-worthy) is a true force of nature, a survivor who doesn’t know how to take it easy. But they’re burning out on the motel business.
El Monaco is on its last legs, and Elliot is feeling the pull of California, when he reads about a rock festival being kicked out of a nearby town. As president of White Lake’s chamber of commerce, he seizes the opportunity and invites producer Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) and his staff of steely-eyed Manhattan corporate hippies to put on their show in the little burg — to the dismay of the townsfolk. The festival crew settles on the dairy farm of one Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy of American Pie and SCTV ). Helicopters, limos, and half a million people show up, and the rest is history, or so it might seem. But we’re already involved in the secret histories of Elliot, his parents, the Earth Light Players theater troupe who live in the Teichbergs’ barn, Vilma the drag queen bouncer (Liev Schreiber), Billy the flashback-crazed Namvet (Emile Hirsch), a plate of Alice B. Toklas brownies, and Elliot’s voyage of self-discovery.
The Ice Storm–Crouching Tiger–Brokeback Mountain–Lust, Caution team teases some of 2009’s finest acting jobs out of all concerned. Staunton’s Sonia Teichberg is some sort of Ukrainian dynamo. Schreiber is also a delight as the burly Vilma. And when Martin’s Elliot finally takes his trip into “The Ocean” of festival-goers, in the best “psychedelic” sequence this side of Terry Gilliam, the whole Sixties thing opens up like a lotus. It’s bigger than just the Boomers. Lee & Co. are into Frank Capra, Robert Altman, Preston Sturges territory here. The tale of this “major hippie invasion” of forty years ago turns out to be a valentine to America from the only filmmaker capable of wrangling both Shaolin monks and gay Wyoming cowboys into the same filmography. Taking Woodstock is a masterpiece.
Jimmy Page didn’t play Woodstock; he and his Led Zeppelin bandmates reportedly didn’t like the idea of sharing a bill with all those other acts. David “The Edge” Evans, later to be U2’s guitarist, was an eight-year-old in Dublin at the time. And Jack White wasn’t born yet. In Davis Guggenheim’s very entertaining musical documentary It Might Get Loud, we get to know these three rock guitarists, who jam together and talk about their careers and musical inspirations.
It’s a fine idea to pick three distinctly different musicians for a project like this, and fun to recognize their commonalities beyond the basic love of the electric guitar. White, from a hard-scrabble part of Detroit, likes to tinker and has built most of his guitars from spare parts. He and 65-year-old London native Page share a love of old-time country blues by artists like Son House. The Edge, who also built his first guitar as a kid, digs electronic effects — his spacey sound is a hallmark of U2’s popularity. And yet, one of the film’s highlights is an unplugged version of the Band’s “The Weight.”
Filmmaker Davis (An Inconvenient Truth) should continue this music-doc thread and match up more trios of hot-shot pickin’-and-grinnin’ heroes. How about Jeff Beck, Prince, and John Scofield? Or, for the perverse, former adversaries Ry Cooder and Keith Richards, with Telecaster master Bill Kirchen as referee? Of course, we can always dream about a Jimi Hendrix-Wes Montgomery-Grant Green date somewhere on Cloud Nine. Turn up the volume.
There’s a chance director Shane Meadows’ quiet, understated character study Somers Town might slip in and out of theaters quickly, while no one was looking. Don’t let that happen. It’s a disarmingly sweet story of two boys becoming friends in contemporary London, where they’re both essentially outsiders.
Tomo (played by Thomas Turgoose as basically an update of his character in This Is England, also for filmmaker Meadows) is a runaway from Nottingham in the English Midlands, on his own in the big city and easy prey. Marek (Piotr Jagiello) is the son of an immigrant Polish construction worker (Ireneusz Czop). They meet in the title neighborhood and form a basic, early-teenage alliance — sex never enters into it. Both Marek and Tomo seem a little behind the times, a bit slow on the uptake, as if awed by their very existence. That doesn’t stop them, however, from getting a crush on a French waitress or doing harmless odd jobs for the local odd jobber. Meadows specializes in ground-level narratives of plain, ordinary people, slightly in the vein of early Ken Loach. Somers Town is worth a look for fans of that gentle, nouveau-kitchen-sink attitude.