Skip to main content

Film director Ang Lee.Ryan Carter

In the summer of 1969, as Americans were getting high and muddy at the Woodstock Music & Art Fair, some 12,700 kilometres away, Ang Lee, a ninth grader at Tainan's Yen-Ping Junior High School in Taiwan, was cramming for the standardized high-school entrance exam. He was studying harder than most: His father was a high-school principal. Not placing well would bring ignominy to the family.

"Taiwan was extremely conservative back then," Lee said earlier this month, settling into a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria which a publicist has rearranged to make more intimate, at his gentle request. "You wouldn't dream of travelling abroad," he continues, speaking in his first language of Mandarin after finding out I'm also from Taiwan. "If you were going overseas, it would be to study - which was a big deal. You couldn't leave the country before completing your compulsory military service. And during that time, if your hair was a little longer [than the standard military cut] cops would put you in a mobile barbershop on patrol. They would also snip off any loose threads from fraying jeans."

From a flickering black-and-white television newscast, the 14-year-old Lee - who would eventually go on to direct American classics such as The Ice Storm and win an Oscar for the trailblazing gay western, Brokeback Mountain - caught glimpses of Woodstock. He didn't know how to pronounce any of the performers' names and knew nothing about the mud, drugs or free love. But he yearned to be there. It was everything his regimented world of books and exams was not. Forty years later, he has finally made it - recreating the event and the pull it exerted around the world in his new film Taking Woodstock .

The movie, which opens on Friday, adapts the eponymous memoir by Elliot Tiber, who furnished a permit and his parents' ramshackle motel to the festival's organizers, and then led them to Max Yasgur's farm when no one else in the area would have them. Lee spins the tale into a coming-of-age story about a young man, played by comedian Demetri Martin, inundated with familial obligations, who finds himself at the universe's very centre in the summer of '69.

Lee said that 40 years ago, the festival elicited mixed emotions from the Taiwanese. By the late '60s, the United States was established as the free-world leader and had assisted the island nation in fending off communist China. Taiwan also was receiving American aid for its efforts in the Vietnam War. "America was a source of security," Lee said softly, as if speaking to a guest in his living room.

"In that sense, the Taiwanese weren't too thrilled with the hippie movement in America at the time because it was unstable and anti-war. From another perspective, every aspect of American pop culture was thought of as way cool, and the Taiwanese worshipped it."

When he moved to the United States in 1978 to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he studied theatre, Lee finally got a taste of Woodstock through Michael Wadleigh's groundbreaking concert film. He gradually familiarized himself with the bluesy rock vocals of Janis Joplin and the guitar pyrotechnics of Jimi Hendrix. Most important, he says he learned that if you remember Woodstock, you probably weren't there.

Still, Lee said he never became the sort of aficionado who can instantly recall the festival's entire roster. With Taking Woodstock , he preferred to focus on the atmosphere, not wanting to get caught up in the music for fear of losing sight of the bigger picture. When the film premiered at Cannes in May, some critics complained about its lack of music and stage performances, either re-created or archival. But Lee was always more interested in the attendees. Besides, he thought, iconic, instantly recognizable songs would only distract moviegoers.

"The vast majority couldn't even see the stage," he said. "The only sounds they heard were faint reverberations from afar. So the spirit of being there was what mattered. People didn't go just for the music. It was a social movement. And also, most people there were probably stoned, high on acid trips or free-loving - all parts of being a hippie. So if you were really just there for the music, you probably didn't belong if you were sober and could recall exactly what happened."

Still, it was years before he had the idea to do a Woodstock movie. Lee came across Tiber's memoir after meeting the author by chance at a San Francisco radio station in 2007, and was immediately taken with it. He had made a series of tragic films, starting with The Ice Storm and ending with Lust, Caution , and was suffering from a bout of depression for having immersed himself so fully in his characters' miseries. Taking Woodstock felt to him like a throwback to the feel-good "Father Knows Best" trilogy - Pushing Hands , The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman - that had launched his career. Something about Taking Woodstock so resonated with him that he put on hold an invitation to direct the big-screen treatment of Canadian novelist Yann Martel's Life of Pi . (He says he still hasn't committed fully to the film, and is waiting for a final script.)

"I started out making these heartwarming family dramas and comedies," Lee said. "I really wanted to go back and revisit that age of innocence. Woodstock embodied that for me. I had previously made The Ice Storm and thought it represented the hangover from Woodstock. So in contrast, this story made me warm and happy. It spoke of the age of innocence and served as a karmic prequel to The Ice Storm ."

Lee's 1997 adaptation of Rick Moody's novel about soulless suburbanites swapping spouses, boozing and shoplifting in the 1970s established the director's affinity for the American spiritual malaise. Tiber's tale about a young man's self-discovery through peace, love and rock 'n' roll has brought Lee full circle, and to the America he idealized in his youth.

"Innocence is not only something I try to regain," he said, "but also re-examine."

Special to The Globe and Mail