May 16, 2009 / 1:17 PM / 10 years ago

New Ang Lee film conjures up spirit of Woodstock

CANNES, France (Reuters) - Oscar-winning director Ang Lee conjures the optimism of late 1960s America in a touching film based on the true story of Elliot Tiber, who was instrumental in organizing the legendary Woodstock concert.

Director Ang Lee (R) poses with producer Celia Costas (2nd R) and cast members James Schamus, Emile Hirsch, Demetri Martin and Imelda Staunton (L-R) during a photocall for the film "Taking Woodstock" at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival May 16, 2009. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

In “Taking Woodstock,” news footage and the presence in the cast of troubled Vietnam war veteran Billy, played by Emile Hirsch, are reminders of the violent backdrop to the event.

But they barely intrude upon what is a feel-good movie in which Lee aimed to capture what he called “the last moment of innocence,” and a contrast to his most recent films “Brokeback Mountain” and “Lust, Caution,” both tragedies.

“I was yearning to do a comedy/drama again without cynicism,” Lee told reporters on Saturday at the Cannes film festival, where Taking Woodstock is in the main competition.

“For me ‘69 ... is a glorified idea, a romantic image of the late 60s, the last piece of innocence we had, at least in my mind,” the 54-year-old Taiwanese director added.

“To me it’s the innocence of a young generation departing from the old establishment and trying to find a more refreshing way, more fair way to live with everybody else.

“You have to give those half a million kids the credit of actually having three days of peace and music, nothing violent happened. I don’t know if it could happen today.”

An estimated 500,000 fans turned up in August, 1969, to hear the likes of Janis Joplin, The Who and Jimi Hendrix perform on a dairy farm belonging to Tiber’s neighbor Max Yasgur.

Taking Woodstock, which is based on Tiber’s memoirs, will be released in cinemas on the 40th anniversary weekend.


Rather than recreating the concert itself, Taking Woodstock follows Tiber, his family and friends from the town of Bethel as they prepare to host an event which turned out to be one of the biggest and most important in rock history.

A theater troupe puts on performances that invariably end with everyone on stage in the nude, while Tiber’s parents, who run the ramshackle El Monaco motel, work around the clock to capitalize on the sudden influx that arrives on their doorstep.

British actors Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton are Tiber’s Jewish immigrant parents who react very differently to the new and strange world of music executives, hippies, hangers-on and a cross-dressing ex-Marine called Vilma, played by Liev Schreiber.

Staunton’s character cannot let go of her past.

“I’m playing someone who cannot change, and the whole story and the concert and the documentary, and now the film, is showing how change can happen,” Staunton said.

“So symbolically I’m rather regretful that I’m someone who is stuck with her own struggle and can’t move on.”

Tiber, the central character portrayed by comedian Demetri Martin, breaks free from his overbearing mother to discover his own sexuality.

Despite the homage paid to the spirit of free love and free tickets, everyone is on the make, from Yasgur to locals who charge thirsty festival-goers to fill their bottles with water.

The event was captured in Michael Wadleigh’s three-hour 1970 documentary, which picked up an Oscar.

Lee acknowledged the influence of the documentary on Taking Woodstock, and writer James Schamus said he hoped the movie would encourage people to go and watch the earlier work.

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Editing by Louise Ireland

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