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article imageJonathan Groff returns to the '60s in Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock Special

By Earl Dittman     Aug 26, 2009 in Entertainment
Jonathan Groff, the young stage star (Spring Awakening & Hair), stars in Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock. Portraying promoter Michael Lang, the brainchild behind the greatest 3-day rock event in history, Groff talks about bringing the icon to life onscreen.
If there is one, single human being responsible for turning 1969’s Woodstock Music and Arts Festival into the greatest cultural events of the past two centuries, it would have to be the daring and charismatic Michael Lang. If you caught the Academy Award-winning Woodstock, Three Days Of Peace & Music documentary, he was the curly-haired impresario-in-training riding around the backstage area on a motorbike while groups like The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Santana and Sly and the Family Stone and artists like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin churned out the most memorable and classic rock ‘n’ roll music ever created.
Jonathan Groff & Demetri Martin in Taking Woodstoc
Jonathan Groff & Demetri Martin in Taking Woodstock
Focus Features
In award-winning director Ang Lee’s latest cinematic epic, Taking Woodstock, Michael Lang is once again tooling around the backstage area, but this time around, in a producer/writer James Shamus’ dramatized version of the actual events that took place on that historic weekend of peace, music and love in Upstate New York, Michael Lang is actually acting newcomer Jonathan Groff, making his big screen debit in Taking Woodstock. Having become a critical and audience favorite through his Broadway role in Spring Awakening and his lead role in New York’s Shakespeare In The Park revival of Hair, Groff been reliving the 1960’s for a while now. “From Hair to Taking Woodstock, I feel like a real child of the flower power generation,” the 24-year-old says with a laugh. “But, I wouldn’t have it any other way, because I fell in love with the ’60 by working with Ang Lee in Taking Woodstock.”
Directed by the man who brought us such cinematic masterpieces as Brokeback Mountain, The Ice Storm, Lust, Caution and Sense and Sensibility — and featuring a stunning ensemble cast that also includes Demetri Martin, Dan Fogler, Henry Goodman, Eugene Levy, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Imelda Staunton, Emile Hirsch and Liev Schreiber — Taking Woodstock is Ang Lee’s take on Elliot Tiber's memoir Taking Woodstock, A True Story of A Riot, A Concert and A Life (adapted by screenwriter/producer James Shamus) about the events that took place behind the scenes of the real event — Woodstock.
Producer/writer James Shamus & director Ang Le
Producer/writer James Shamus & director Ang Lee on Taking Woodstock
Focus Features
Based on a true story, Taking Woodstock chronicles how Elliot Tiber (Martin) saved the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival from being completely scrapped. Hoping to save his parents’ rundown Catskills motel from foreclosure, when Tiber hears that a planned concert had lost its permit from the neighboring town of Wallkill, New York, Tiber (president of the White Lake city council) phones up producer/promoter Michael Lang (Groff) at Woodstock Ventures and offer him a permit to hold the “small” Woodstock hippie festival in the fields of Max Yasgur's farm in White Lake and complete usage of his family's El Monaco motel while they prepare for the concert. When half-a-million people show up at Max’s farm, Tiber find himself swept up in a generation-defining experience that would change his life, and American culture — forever. “I feel like I was part of the whole experience after I did the movie,” Groff says during a New York press day to promote the film. “People are always asking me what it was like to do, and I’ll I can come up with is ‘groovy.’ I guess after the movie and Hair, I’m a real hippie now.”
Michael Lang circa 2009
Michael Lang circa 2009
Focus Features
Did you get to meet the real Michael Lang and get to talk to him about the whole Woodstock experience since you were playing him?“Yes, I did. I did Hair in the park last summer, and he came and saw it. He came and saw me in it, and I saw him. He came and stayed afterwards and said hello and in sort of true Michael Lang fashion, he totally won me over and totally had me under his spell and said, ‘Here’s my cell phone number, here’s my email. I’m an open book to you. Anything you need, any questions you have, use me, tap me as a resource.’ So I took full advantage of that and called him, emailed him, spent the weekend with him and his family in Woodstock. I got to know him and his wife and Leslo and Harry, his two little kids, and I got to know the real deal, which was awesome. Awesome, because he has a very specific way about him – his mannerisms and the way that he walks and the way that he looks at you when he’s talking to you and connects with you. So I got to study and use all of that, obviously, for the movie and for me as an actor. But I also got to meet and hang out with this incredible guy. You learn a lot about life just hanging out with Michael Lang. He’s the real deal. So I guess the research ended up being two-fold. It was great for the research purposes and great just in my life getting to meet this amazing person.”
Did you watch the Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock, Three Days Of Peace & Music documentary? You look very much like the Michael Lang we see in that film. How did you approach playing him? Is it Lang from 1969 or Michael of today?“I am doing the man of today. I mean, I could only know the man of ’69 by all the stuff that I’ve read about people that have known him then and the video footage from that documentary and other little things, but he is essentially is the same person if you’re going by the research. I mean, he is magnetic, he is charming, he is so laid-back, easy going, he has incredible faith in the human spirit and the ability for humans to come together and work together. He’s like the same. And when I heard about the audition I immediately went out and got the documentary and he’s in the first fifteen minutes, that scene of him on the motorcycle. And I was like, ‘That’s the guy that I’m auditioning for! You kidding me! With the hair, and the jeans, and the vest, and the boots that’s not me at all!’ But the more I got to know him and the more I got to spend time with him and the more I studied him, the more I felt really connected to him.”
Kelli Garner  Jonathan Groff & Demitri Martin  in
Kelli Garner, Jonathan Groff & Demetri Martin in Taking Woodstock
Focus Features
Since Taking Woodstock is your first movie, is it everything you imagined that it would be? Especially getting to work with a legend like Ang Lee? “I know, I got real lucky, because in so many ways, one of it’s obviously Ang Lee, and so there’s a fear that comes in knowing that your first movie is with Ang Lee, but even more than that there’s like a comfort because he’s a master, he’s an artist, he’s one of the best directors working today, and so you feel safe in those hands for your first movie. You feel totally taken care of. He’s very specific, he’s very detail oriented, he’s very good at communicating. He has like a track record for that. So, I felt so pumped to work with him and he didn’t let me down; he taught me many, many, many things. So there was that aspect of it. I got to live in the late ‘60s, which was a pretty great time period to live in, again. I know. Who knew? And then I got to play this iconic, sort of important person -- Michael Lang, which is a very interesting guy, really interesting character and holds a really interesting place, I think, in this film.”
Do you see some parallels in your work? Spring Awakening deals with a certain sexual revolution, things about youth, all that stuff. There are some interesting parallels between that and Taking Woodstock. “It’s true. Woodstock is what those kids at Spring Awakening would have killed for, which is part of the whole purpose of Spring Awakening, was to show these very conservative kids in 1891, what they could have done, and what they could have felt, and what they could have expressed, and what they could have released and how it probably would have solved some problems had they had the outlet that young people have today, which is rock and roll and the ability to let go and express yourself and go to a concert and scream and run around and really speak about what’s going inside of you and that’s the, yeah, that’s totally the epitome of Woodstock and that’s the reason why people went to Woodstock, because they wanted to break out, they wanted to express themselves, they wanted to go against the grain, they wanted to live an alternate lifestyle than the one that was sort of set up for them.”
Wavey & Michael Lang at Woodstock 1969
Wavey & Michael Lang at Woodstock 1969
Warner Bros.
Do you think Taking Woodstock is pro-drug?“Surprisingly, I don’t think this movie has anything specifically -- I mean, there’s a moment where Elliot smokes pot in it, which is a very funny moment, and does acid. When you look back and you think about — someone who doesn’t know about Woodstock, for me at least, when I look back and think about it — drugs, obviously, was a big part of that culture and a part of the counterculture, absolutely. But when I look back, when I see this film, Taking Woodstock, to me, as a person from my generation, that, weirdly enough drugs are not the first thing that I think of, it’s more the vision, the positivity, the innocence, and the passion of the late ‘60s. People really felt like they could hold a protest and hold hands and make change. Which, I think over the years people maybe got a little jaded and got a little away from that. I really feel like when I went back and started working on this material and really getting into it and studying about Woodstock, I felt really inspired by it and by that vibe and I hope that people from my generation, when they come and see this movie, they will get to see Woodstock and they’ll get to know how it happened, and they’ll get to see it, smell it, feel it, watch what it looked like, see all the crazy hippies, see all of that stuff and get the real feel for the time period. But then also I really hope that they get inspired that time and the vision.”
Has Taking Woodstock inspired you in many ways?“Very much so. Michael Lang was twenty-four years old when he spearheaded Woodstock. I’m twenty-four years old. It makes me want to get up and do something. Getting to know him, getting to see that, it’s a really inspiring thing. And I think that with, when Obama, for example, when Obama won the election in the fall I was in midtown watching on TV in some bar. When it was very clear that he won it was like it was New Year’s Eve in midtown. People were crying, they were running down the streets, they were screaming, they were opening their car doors. It was like a party and it reminded me, having just worked on all this Woodstock stuff, it really reminded me of that energy and that positivity, because also so many young people, this year, got involved in going door-to-door and really feeling like ‘if we pull together we can do this, we can make change, we can make this happen.’ Really a grass-root sort of attitude about everything, so I think that people are hungry for this sort of movie and this sort of vibe and I hope that they feel that positivity when they leave it."
Building the Woodstock stage in 1969
Building the Woodstock stage in 1969
Warner Bros.
More about Woodstock, Ang, Groff
 
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