Taking Woodstock (2009)

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“Taking Woodstock” is the new film from Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee – and it’s a trip! Based on the memoirs of Elliot Tiber, the comedy stars Demetri Martin as Elliot, who inadvertently played a role in making 1969’s Woodstock Music and Arts Festival into the famed happening it was. Featuring a standout ensemble cast, and songs from a score of ’60s musical icons including The Grateful Dead, The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, and Country Joe and the Fish – plus a new recording of “Freedom” from Richie Havens – Taking Woodstock is a joyous voyage to a moment in time when everything seemed possible. Working as an interior designer in Greenwich Village, Elliot feels empowered by the gay rights movement. But he is also still staked to the family business – a dumpy Catskills motel called the El Monaco that is being run into the ground by his overbearing parents, Jake and Sonia Teichberg (Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton). In the summer of 1969, Elliot has to move back upstate to the El Monaco in order to help save the motel from being taken over by the bank. Upon hearing that a planned music and arts festival has lost its permit from the neighboring town of Wallkill, NY, Elliot calls producer Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) at Woodstock Ventures to offer his family’s motel to the promoters and generate some much-needed business. Elliot also introduces Lang to his neighbor Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy), who operates a 600-acre dairy farm down the road. Soon the Woodstock staff is moving into the El Monaco – and half a million people are on their way to Yasgur’s farm for “3 days of Peace & Music in White Lake.” With a little help from his friends, including theater troupe leader Devon (Dan Fogler), recently returned Vietnam veteran Billy (Emile Hirsch), and cross-dressing ex-Marine Vilma (Liev Schreiber) – and with a little opposition from townspeople, including Billy’s brother Dan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) – Elliot finds himself swept up in a generation-defining experience that would change his life – and popular culture – forever.
(from iTunes)

Genre: Comedy
Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Demetri Martin, Dan Fogler, Henry Goodman, Jonathan Groff, Eugene Levy
In theaters: August 28, 2009

“Ang Lee’s Woodstock Aberration” by Richard and Mary Corliss

Editor’s Note: The following article is reprinted from “Time”, published: May 14, 2009

I’m going on down to Yasgur’s farm
I’m going to join in a rock ‘n’ roll band
I’m going to get back to the land
And get my soul free …
—Joni Mitchell, “Woodstock”

On July 20, 1969, a man walked on the moon. Three weekends later, about a half-million people attended, or tried to attend, the Woodstock music festival — three days of peace, love and music that still stand as an emblem for all that was groovy and messy about the late ’60s. In anticipation of the concert’s 40th anniversary, Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock documentary was released in a director’s cut on DVD and Blu-ray. And on Aug. 14, a day before the exact anniversary, Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock opened in U.S. theaters, although it had its world premiere weeks prior at Cannes.

This is one of those little movies set against a big event, like I Wanna Hold Your Hand (how four girls got into Ed Sullivan’s theater to see the Beatles) or Love Field (Diane Lane as a JFK fan in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963). Lee’s film is screenwriter-producer James Schamus’ adaptation of Elliot Tiber’s reminiscence about his small but crucial role in bringing the mammoth concert to his hometown.

The film’s Elliot (Comedy Central’s Demetri Martin) is a New York City decorator who’s come back to his Catskills home to help his parents manage their decrepit motel, which is facing bankruptcy in the early summer of ’69. His parents (Brit theatrical lights Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton) are as eager for him to stay there forever as he is determined to leave. But when he reads that the Woodstock festival planned for that August has been denied a permit in a nearby town, he calls the promoters and invites them to White Lake and its neighboring town Bethel, where farmer Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy) might be willing to rent it to them for $5,000. Make that $75,000, when he learns how desperate they are.

Lee, who was born and raised in Taiwan and didn’t head to the States until the late ’70s, has often shown an outsider’s acuity in portraying the subtleties and sadness of American folkways. His The Ice Storm, set in 1973, andBrokeback Mountain, which spans three decades beginning in the ’60s, couldn’t be more simpatico with the quiet desperation of ordinary folks. In this ostensible comedy, though, his ear is tin, his eye myopic. The right-wing townsfolk, artsy theater people and visiting hippies come across as the shallowest stereotypes. Lee’s attempts to imitate the split-screen and psychedelic cinema tricks of the period have nowhere near the originals’ garish grandeur.

The business end of the Woodstock enterprise holds some interest, but the family dynamic is sitcom-broad and contains a near libelous caricature of immigrant Jews. Maybe Elliot’s mother really was a screaming, tightfisted tyrant, and his father the standard henpecked husband. And maybe Lee couldn’t find American actors who’d fit his view of these cartoon creatures. But to outfit Staunton in a housedress that is gargantuanly padded in the bosom and butt is to force an exceptional actress into unintended parody, and to reduce the Holocaust-survivors generation to Borscht Belt jokes. Staunton has made a long trip south from Oscar-nominated actress to Vera Drake, yenta.

A few actors crawl out of the rubble. Give Jonathan Groff (a major new cutie) a hand for turning the Woodstock weekend’s chief promoter, Michael Lang, into a figure so charismatic, and so central to the actual concert, that viewers will think the movie should have been about him. Liev Schreiber also earns credit for not being buried under the stereotype of a muscular cross-dresser who serves as Elliot’s security chief. The vaunted Broadway actor shows something we hadn’t seen before: nice legs!

The rest of the movie is a mess — Lee’s first total miscalculation, his first wholly inessential film. He’ll do better; he almost has to. The rest of us with any interest in a 40-year-old rock concert can get the DVD of Woodstock, and maybe sing along to a new version of Joni Mitchell’s tune:

I’m going on down to Wadleigh’s film
I’m going to have a cinematic blast
Where the music lives tho it’s from the past
And the film ain’t by Ang Lee.

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