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Taking Woodstock
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Well, At Least There Isn't Any Sha Na Na"
2 stars

“Taking Woodstock” tells the purportedly true story of a young man who, over the course of one eventful weekend in upstate New York in the summer of 1969, helped to stage one of the most famous music festivals ever produced, helped to fight off the fuddy-duddies who wanted to shut it down, managed to rescue the ramshackle motel belonging to his immigrant parents from financial doom, got to indulge in an acid-tinged threesome with a pair of obliging hippies, came out of the closet with the help of a hunky handyman, summoned up the strength to leave the parental nest at last in order to set off on his own and still managed to begin each one of the concert’s three days in clean clothes while demonstrating enough impeccable taste and timing to be nowhere near the show when Sha-Na-Na took the stage. In other words, it is pretty much the same kind of slightly embellished yarn that former hippies have been laying on people ever since the final notes of Jimi Hendrix’s performance faded away--the difference here is that the person telling the tale is acclaimed filmmaker Ang Lee and not your Uncle Earl or the old guy down at the auto body shop. As a result, the storytelling is a little more engaging than it might have been in other, lesser hands but not quite engaging enough to make anyone really care about where it is all going in the end.

That aforementioned busy young man is Elliot Teichberg (comedian Demitri Martin), a failing interior designer who has left New York City to return to Bethel, located in the Catskills area, to help his immigrant parents (Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton) save their dilapidated (to put it mildly) El Monaco from foreclosure or condemnation, whichever comes first. In his spare time, he has also been elected the head of the local chamber of commerce and has used that position to put on a yearly arts festival--past events have involved him playing records on the lawn and for this year’s gala, a experimental theater group is in the barn behind the motel rehearsing the very kind of material that would eventually give experimental theater a bad name. One day, he learns that a nearby community has just scuttled plans for a three-day music festival scheduled to feature the likes of Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, The Who--even Bob Dylan might be coming out of his self-exile to play--and since he already has a festival permit in hand, he contacts concert producer Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) with the idea of staging the concert in Bethel. When Lang and his staff of advisors arrive, however, they discover that Elliot’s idea for a concert site--the lands behind the El Monaco --is totally unsuitable (despite a series of suggested “improvements” that begin with the impractical and quickly spiral into outright fantasy) and are about to leave when Elliot suggests that the vast fields belonging to local farmer Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy) might work. As it turn out, it is the perfect location and even better, the soft-spoken Yasgur is on the side of the hippies and is willing to let them rent his land for the show (though not so soft-spoken as to negotiate a raise in the rent once he begins to recognize the scale of what is going on).

Of course, the idea of extending an open invitation to area hippies to invade White Lake with their free love and bell bottoms and funny cigarettes and jam bands doesn’t exactly sit well with most of the townspeople and Elliot and Max both become local pariahs and the local mood isn’t improved when the early attendance estimates prove to be wildly inaccurate as hundreds of thousands of young people begin drifting into town for the show (though many of those locals are still willing to gouge the visitors for every cent they can grab, Elliot’s mother included). However, there is so much other peripheral stuff going on that Elliot barely has time to notice the swelling crowds in the lead-up to the show. A couple of mobsters arrive to get a piece of the action and are chased off by Elliot’s parents, an action that leads to the arrival of a cross-dressing ex-Marine (Live Schreiber) who winds up helping out with security. The arrival of a studly construction worker helps Elliot get up the nerve to finally come out of the closet. The actions of Elliot’s greedy and overbearing mother come to a head when some shocking secrets are revealed and inspire him to finally take charge of his own life. With all of this bearing down upon him--and I haven’t even yet mentioned the old pal (Emilie Hirsch) who has just returned from a tour of duty in Vietnam and who is all crazed and confused as a result--it is no wonder that Elliot succumbs to some substances of an illicit nature and while an ill-advised joint before a press conference for the concert leads to an embarrassing case of reefer madness, an acid trip with a couple of extra-friendly hippies (Paul Dano and Kelli Garner) as his guides allows him to expand his horizons in every sense of the word.

Throughout his career as a filmmaker, Ang Lee has been one to shy away from an artistic challenge and for the most part, such as “Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger” and the terribly underrated “Hulk,” he has succeeded--even when he has had the occasional misfire, such as “Ride With the Devil” or “Lust, Caution,” they have at least had the dignity to be ambitious failures. With “Taking Woodstock,” however, he faces an obstacle that most filmmakers would find insurmountable and winds up proving him right. That obstacle, of course, is the presence of “Woodstock,” Michael Wadleigh’s acclaimed 1970 documentary of the festival that presumably anyone with an interest in seeing this film will have no doubt already seen several times. The trouble for Lee is that Wadleigh’s film did such a thorough and complete job of documenting both the concert and the scene that developed around it over those three tumultuous days that there is hardly any aspect left for Lee and writer James Schamus to explore that won’t come across as overly familiar. Lee’s response to this problem is fairly schizoid--there are times when he consciously evokes the earlier film either by utilizing the same kind of cinematic tricks that Wadleigh used (such as enough split-screen visuals to make you think that you have wandered into a Brian De Palma movie) or by briefly recreating famous moments from it (such as the touching interview with the Port-O-San Man) and there are times when he deliberately tries to set his own path, most notably by his decision to essentially ignore the musical performance aspect altogether. The problem is that no matter what approach he takes at any given moment, it is almost always the wrong one. While Wadleigh often had a point and purpose when he would deploy the split-screen technique (such as capturing more than one element of the on-stage performances or using one series of images to comment on another during the background stuff), Lee simply uses it as a shorthand gimmick to remind viewers of the earlier movie. As for the recreations, they are just a bad idea from the get-go because no matter how meticulously they may have been done, they don’t contain even a sliver of the interest generated by the real deal. The choice to eschew virtually all the music may strike some viewers as insane, I suppose I can understand the artistic conceit behind this choice--what better way to prove that Woodstock was more than just a concert than to ignore the music entirely in order to focus on how it was the sense of community that gave Elliot the strength to change his life?--and in a good movie along those lines, the absence of the music might not have even been noticed. However, since it isn’t a very good movie, it just becomes another distraction as most viewers will find themselves wondering both why a movie about Woodstock has virtually no music and why, given that, they are still being forced to listen to fricking “Wooden Ships.”

At the same time, even if you have somehow never seen the original “Woodstock” or are able to put it entirely out of your mind in order to judge it on its own merits, “Taking Woodstock” still doesn’t work very well. One of the key problems is that while Lee has gone to great lengths to accurately recreate the era, there is hardly a truly authentic moment on display. As anyone who saw my “Inglourious Basterds” review can attest, I am not one to be completely hung up on historical inaccuracies. While “Taking Woodstock” apparently takes numerous liberties with the historical record (concert producer Michael Lang has raised questions about its truthfulness and it is a fact that in real life, Elliot Teichberg was about a decade older in real life than he is depicted here), the problem isn’t as much the fact that it isn’t specifically 100% accurate as much as it never feels like it could have been accurate. Everything is done in the broadest possible strokes and the screenplay is so episodic in nature that it feels like a random series of events than a cohesive story. To make matters worse, most of those events feel as if they have been inspired less by real life than from other coming-of-age movies made during this people--instead, we get stock characters (the itchy vet, the reactionary townspeople, the made-for-TV hippies who behave like a slightly shaggier version of Up With People) and stock situations (yes, a plate of hash brownies makes an appearance and yes, Elliot’s parents wind up tucking into them with wacky results) whose collective dramatic appeal pretty much waned for good back in 1973. Another problem is the fact that our hero just isn’t a very interesting character--we are clearly supposed to look upon him as a real-life version of Benjamin Braddock but apparently Lee hasn’t discovered the dirty little secret of “The Graduate,” which is that neither the film nor the character are particularly interesting. In this regard, matters aren’t helped by the bland lead performance from Demitri Martin, whose deadpan attitude does not translate especially well to the big screen. On the other hand, at least his performance isn’t as terminally awful as the one delivered by the usually reliable Imelda Staunton as his mother. In the screenplay, her character has been written as the ultimate cliché of an aging Jewish mother from the old country--she hates everything, she is miserly and drops references to the Holocaust whenever she doesn’t get her way--and Staunton overplays it to such a degree that I found myself becoming offended by it and I’m not even Jewish. Imagine what the Robert Downey Jr. performance in “Tropic Thunder” might have been like if it wasn’t actually funny and you will have any idea of how crudely caricatured Staunton’s work is here.

“Taking Woodstock” isn’t a complete disaster--there are some moments that do work (the acid trip scene is especially impressive) and Eugene Levy’s impression of Max Yasgur is eerily accurate--and it has a genial, laid-back spirit that helps keep things moving along up to a point. In addition, it is a reasonably noble effort and I can see why Ang Lee might want to make a light paean to personal, cultural and sexual freedom after making the rather chilly and antiseptic “Lust, Caution.” However, in the end, there is nothing on display here that you won’t find handled better in the actual “Woodstock” movie and by the time “Taking Woodstock” comes to an end, you may find yourself asking “Was this long, strange trip really necessary?”

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=18378&reviewer=389
originally posted: 08/28/09 00:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Festival de Cannes For more in the 2009 Festival de Cannes series, click here.

User Comments

9/19/09 Joseph F. Miranda Great fun, very funny, more music is my only complaint.Don't miss this. 5 stars
8/31/09 barney rubble buds tunes laughter,one more reason to cancel american idol 5 stars
8/30/09 Samantha Pruitt i really colorful moving, i really got into it! 5 stars
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  26-Aug-2009 (R)
  DVD: 15-Dec-2009


  DVD: 15-Dec-2009

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