Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 35
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
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For more movie summaries, see Kam’s Kapsules.

THANKS FOR SAVING OUR MUSIC FESTIVAL!: Woodstock festival promoter Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff, left) is grateful to Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin) who agreed to turn over his permit rights to hold a concert that weekend to the promoters of the Woodstock music festival.

Taking Woodstock: Historic Rock Concert Revisited by Bittersweet Biopic

Kam Williams

On August 15, 1969, over a half-million people traveled to the Catskills Mountains in upstate New York for a three-day music festival which would come to symbolize the hippie generation. The rock concert ended up taking place in the tiny town of Bethel on a 600 acre meadow owned by Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy), a dairy farmer approached by the desperate promoters after their request for permission to hold the event in nearby Woodstock had been denied.

The organizers were on the verge of cancelling their well-publicized show; until they luckily found Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin), the president of Bethel’s Chamber of Commerce. Quite by coincidence, Elliot already had a valid permit to stage an annual outdoor concert that featured a few local bands. So, he happily transferred his rights over to promoter Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) who had more than 30 acts booked, including, amongst others, rock-and-roll greats Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Jefferson Airplane, and The Who.

In 2007, Elliot published Taking Woodstock, a wistful autobiography that recounts the pivotal role he played in the weeks leading up to the historic weekend. The events described in that book are the basis for this bittersweet biopic directed by Oscar winner Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain).

So, don’t expect to see any classic festival performances, because Elliot’s role during the weekend was far removed from the music and the limelight. Instead, he was busy working as a jack-of-all-trades at the El Monaco, the 80-room motel owned by his immigrant parents, Sonia (Imelda Staunton) and Jake (Henry Goodman), Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. Their motel, ordinarily one of the less popular tourist spots in the Borscht Belt, suddenly is filled to capacity, despite just being cited for 47 health code violations.

Most of the humorous exchanges which ensue emanate from the stark contrast between the local people and the hippies who are overrunning the region. Elliot’s parents are particularly hilarious, as they hurl Yiddish epithets like “Schnook!” and “Meshuggeneh!” at their hippie customers while taking advantage of them by charging them for tap water and triple-renting their rooms. The parents’ behavior is juxtaposed against that of the flower children who are stoned most of the time.

Curiously, what bubbles to the surface amidst all this weirdness is a poignant picture of Elliot suspended between two worlds and never quite feeling comfortable in either. It turns out that he’s a homosexual living in the closet when he’s in Bethel; as a result, he can’t be his natural self during the festival. However, in Greenwich Village, where Elliot has a flat and a lover (Gabriel Sunday), he participated that very same summer in the Stonewall riots, deemed by many to be the defining moment of the gay rights movement.

Congratulations to Ang Lee for so effectively employing iconic Woodstock imagery as a backdrop against which to amplify the anguished ordeal of a frustrated individual who played a pivotal role in that weekend’s music festival.

Excellent (four stars). Rated R for profanity, sexuality, drug use, and nudity. Running time: 120 minutes. Studio: Focus Features.

For more movie summaries, see Kam’s Kapsules.

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