Cannes Day Three: Part Two
Posted on Friday May 15, 2009, 18:47 by Damon Wise
I hadn't planned to see Taking Woodstock today because it clashed with my plans to see the restoration of Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes, one of my all-time favourite films. But now I've seen Ang Lee's latest, I'm so very moved to write about this fabulous film at once that my entire evening will have to be revised. In short, Lee has done it again; he really has to be one of the most intelligent, subtle and all-round perfect directors working in the English language. What he has done here beats Cameron Crowe at his own game; it's like a Wes Anderson movie with real people and real feelings, and, for me, it's the first truly great movie to receive its world premiere in 2009.
Set 40 years ago this August, Taking Woodstock is an account of the setting up and staging of the three-day music festival that provided both the acme of the 60s experience and also the end, the quintessence of the moment – “the crest of a high and beautiful wave” – lamented by Johnny Depp's Hunter S Thompson in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. It begins in a decrepit NY state motel, where buttoned-up preppy Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin, a stand-up comedian) is helping his parents run their shoddy business. Elliot reads in the paper that a bunch of hippies have been kicked out of the neighbouring town where they planned to hold a rock festival, so he offers them his land as a new base. The motel grounds prove to be a swamp, but luckily a local farmer agrees to give them his field for $75,000, and, with time running out, a deal is begrudgingly struck.
But this is not just a film about a rock festival, and a good half of the movie's two-hour running time is about setting the scene. The background is in the foreground: there are no bad Janis Joplin impressions (the original was bad enough), and the famous brown acid scare is a minor detail in a very rich tapestry. As written by James Schamus, Taking Woodstock is a fantastic coming-of-age movie, even though its hero is well into his twenties. It's a film about identity and family, the past as well as the future – the most exciting thing about it is its optimism, and rather than tell the story (as survivors of the festival do) in a patronising I-guess-you-had-to-be-there tone, Lee's film pulls you into it and immerses you in the fearlessness, humanity and full visceral thrill of getting involved in something so primal and communal. There's barely any rock in it for an hour, either, until The Doors rumble on the soundtrack and the approaching hippie horde can be heard on the horizon.
It may seem from the pre-publicity that this is an ensemble movie, but it really isn't. Such promising talents as Emile Hirsch and Paul Dano have unobtrusive but key supporting roles, while Liev Schreiber as transvestite ex-Marine security guard Vilma is unbelievable. All these characters are simply part of Elliot's odyssey, and once the festival begins, Lee constructs Woodstock as a Heart Of Darkness-style journey through enlightenment and chaos, rather than simply misrule and madness. It's an apocalypse wow, and when Elliot takes a tab of very, very strong LSD and hallucinates to Love's mind-altering Forever Changes album, the (late) summer of love engulfs him in a surreal and beautiful CG-enhanced vision that anyone who's ever been to Glastonbury will appreciate or, depending on their drug intake, perhaps even remember. It also features one of the few non-naff acid trips in cinema history, as Elliot turns on, tunes in and drops out (briefly, back in time for breakfast) to join the revolution.
That this revolution will not last is addressed in a funny but ironic and surprisingly poignant final exchange (I won't spoil it), and it's worth noting here that Lee is on record as seeing Taking Woodstock as a partner piece to The Ice Storm, a film about the conservatism that consumed America after Dr Gonzo's beautiful wave finally broke. It is, at once, a paradox, a film that rhapsodises about America's past while pointing out its flaws and hypocrisies, and deals with hang-ups and prejudices while reminding us how great America citizens were and still are. As our guide through this glorious mess, Demetri Martin is just great, giving an unshowy performance that really centres the film and will, hopefully, allow the film to cross over to pockets of uptight America, even though the film contains copious nudity, coy gay sex and shedloads of drugs.
It is, quite frankly, awesome. It sends me, man, and it's just so far out, I can't wait to see it again.