A film review by Craig J. Koban September 1, 2009


2009, R, 120 mins.

Elliot Teichberg: Demetri Martin / Devon: Dan Fogler / Jake Teichberg: Henry Goodman / Michael Lang: Jonathan Groff / Max Yasgur: Eugene Levy / Dan: Jeffrey Dean Morgan / Sonia Teichberg: Imelda Staunton / Billy: Emile Hirsch / Vilma: Liev Schreiber / John Roberts: Skylar Astin / Jackson Spiers: Kevin Chamberlin / VW Girl: Kelli Garner / VW Guy: Paul Dano

Directed by Ang Lee /  Screenplay by James Schamus, based on the book "Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert, and a Life" by Elliot Tiber with Tom Monte.

Taiwanese-born director Ang Lee certainly has made an indisputably stellar career for strict defying typecasting: no other working filmmaker today has amassed such a varied and intriguingly eclectic resume.  He has daringly and successfully tackled such divergent material and themes in films ranging from SENSE AND SENSIBILITY (an adaptation of Jane Austin) to THE ICE STORM (a 1970’s period drama) to RIDE WITH THE DEVIL (a Civil War- era history film) to CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (a kung-fu fantasy) to HULK (a comic book super hero auctioneer), to BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (gay themed melodrama) and to LUST, CAUTION (erotic period melodrama).  Every one of those films are unique and different, which only reflects Lee has an confident and assured artist that sees no boundaries when it comes to subject matter. 

Because of this, I perhaps had high expectations when it came to his new reality based dramedy, TAKING WOODSTOCK, which, in turn, deals with the origins and backstage drama behind one of the 20th Century’s defining musical events.  Certainly, Lee is smart enough to not opt for recreating the concert itself (for those of you that wish to experience a film that lovingly chronicles the musical festival of “Peace and Music” from August of 1969, rush out and consult Michael Wadleigh’s absolutely compulsory 1971 documentary).  Instead, Lee and his frequent screenplay partner, James Schamus – who adapted a screenplay based on the book by Elliot Tiber and Tom Monte – looks to examine the smaller stories behind the larger-than-life spectacle of the three-day concert.  

The film ostensibly is set in a shoddy, run down, and borderline inhospitable motel in the Catskills town of White Lake, N.Y. where thousands upon thousands of hippy music lovers converged for a chance to make concert history.  History has shown that nearly half a million people attended Woodstock (more than who paid the $8 admission fee, and far more than expected).  For the most part, many barely got a glimpse of the concert stage itself, which begs the question as to what happened to those that needed to be sheltered, fed, cared for, and…well…dealt with in general.  That’s where Lee’s film takes over. 

Regrettably, the film’s narrative focus negatively reflects on Lee himself behind the camera, who has made a career of being a director with a rock steady drive and a secure grasp of his material.  TAKING WOODSTOCK has been described by Lee himself as his attempt at a "comedy," which in itself is commendable: the film is, much like his past work, fiercely ambitious.  Yet, the main problem with the film is that it is far too leisurely, dull, choppy, and unsure of itself, which is surprising seeing as Lee has always been a cinematic taskmaster.  The treatment of the story behind TAKING WOODSTOCK is oftentimes infuriatingly haphazard: Lee is attempting for a sprawling and large scale reality-based portrait here, but the film feels too flat-footed and insecure.  I never gained a specific impression of whether its trying to be a goofy and carefree comedy or a coming of age drama or a backstage concert biopic or a celebration of the festival itself.  Conceivably, it is a bit of all of those things, but Lee’s passion for the project never really emerges throughout the film's two hours.  He seems somewhat lost in the parade of personalities and sub-plots that populate the film, which ultimately makes it hard to hone in on anyone in particular to invest in, not to mention that it slows the film’s momentum down to a thudding halt.  Yes, the film is sweet, light, and innocent – which is definitely very uncharacteristic of Lee’s film cannon – but it lacks the stalwart director’s vision and commitment. 

Set in the late summer of 1969, the film focuses on the story of Eliot Teichberg (Comedy Central’s Demetri Martin, an affable presence that's obviously talented, but he's a real stiff and a bore here) an aspiring Greenwich Village interior designer and closeted homosexual whose parents (Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman) own a dilapidated and terribly mismanaged motel in upstate New York.  His parents, who are growing older and more cantankerous by the minute, need Elliot to return home to assist them with keeping their business afloat.  Actually, scratch that: make that they need him to ensure that the hotel does not crumble to the ground.

Dealing with both the incessant bickering of his parents and with the increasingly wretched conditions of the motel immensely wears down on poor Elliot.  Just when he feels he is at his wit’s end, he sees light at the end of the proverbial tunnel:  He discovers that the organizers of a proposed August rock concert have been refused a permit by a nearby town.  Lightning strikes in Elliot’s industrious mind and he begins to hatch a plan that will make him and his folks some quick cash: He decides to call the concert promoters in order to convince them to come to Bethel, New York, where he holds the town's only musical festival permit.  Elliot has had “outdoor music festivals” before in the town, which amusingly took the form of records being played outdoors to a few dozen people that have gathered with beer and lawn chairs in tow. 

So, as the head of the very, very miniscule Chamber of Commerce in Bethel, Elliot calls the organizers of what will become WOODSTOCK and offers them a chance to hold the concert there.  Initially the land he offers amounts to nothing more than barren and treacherous swamp land, but Elliot – being very quick witted and intrepid – decides that he will try to persuade a local dairy farmer named Max Yasgur (the very restrained and decent Eugene Levy, a joy here) to allow to make his acres be used as the venue location.  He has a few stipulations: He wants $5000 and he also wants everyone to “clean up” afterwards.  Seems fair.  Max initially believes that only a few thousand kids will show up, but when he quickly learns that it could be in the hundreds of thousands, he appeals to Elliot and the organizers to increase his price tag to $75,000.  

Uh...yeah...he gets it. 

If there is one thing that TAKING WOODSTOCK does very well then it would be that it pointedly shies away from the sheer enormity of the concert itself and instead tells more compelling stories of the smaller individuals who took huge personal gambles and chances to ensure that musical history would be made.  We never get a specific glimpse of the onstage performers themselves and the music is all but a whisper on the soundtrack (more on that in a bit), but the point of the film is to show the massive and sometimes intimidating logistics and obstacles that had to be overcome to ensure that Woodstock would be a legendary success.  Permits, financial negotiations, press conferences, lodgings, sanitation, etc…all of this had to be planned in advance, as well as dealing with the influx of a half a million hippies that would converge on the small town (much to the chagrin of the rigidly conservative townsfolk).  To say that Elliot, his family, and the planners were a bit over their heads in hosting this event is a grand understatement, but TAKING WOODSTOCK is moderately involving for how it captures the inertia of the story behind the concert.   

What Lee fails at, though, is cohesiveness.  The comedy of the film – which is exasperatingly broad at times – seems at direct odds with the more important story of the concert itself and with the more sentimental story of Elliot’s sexual awakening.  Laughs are few and far between during many of the film’s sitcom-level moments (largely at the expense of Elliot’s parents) and then Lee radically changes aesthetic gears by filming the backstage events of the concert with Eric Gauthier’s would-be groovy split screen cinematography (a homage clearly to the 1970 documentary, and perhaps to Lee' playful use of it in HULK).  The film’s tone and stylistic choices seem all over the map, and Lee never seems to hone them all in to form a completely interconnected portrait.  This is not assisted by the fact that the film never finds a focal point: it wants us to have a vested interest in Elliot overall, I think, but the nonchalant manner that Lee careens from one character and subplot to the next makes it increasingly difficult to latch on to anyone in particular. 

The performances are a disappointing mixed bag.  On a positive, I really enjoyed Levy as the dairy farmer that takes a huge leap of faith by letting his land become a haven of drug-induced, but peace and humanity loving, hippies for days on end.  I also liked Liev Schreiber as an ex-marine that became a transvestite after the Korean War and now decides to serve as Woodstock’s security liaison…all while dressed in drag.  Schreiber is smart enough not to play up to annoyingly shrill stereotypes and instead plays things straight, which is wise.  The same can’t be said of Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman as Elliot’s’ parents, whose performances are beyond over-the top.  Staunton in particular plays her deeply paranoid motherly figure with such one-dimensionality as a mouth salivating and deeply mistrusting Jewish stereotype that I began to wonder whether she was hijacked from another film and thrown into this one by mistake.  The same can be said of Emile Hirsch, typically a very dependable young actor, but here he is miserably saddled with playing up to every lame and cornball crazy-Vietnam-veteran cliché in the book.  Lee thinks that these personas are funny, but there is not one giggle to be had with them throughout the film.

Then there is Elliot himself, the so-called focal point of our interest in TAKING WOODSTOCK, and Demetri Martin certainly has a calm, sincere, almost Zach Braff-ian gentle charm, but he is so emotionally comatose and inert in the film that he rarely, if ever, commands attention.  His tedious performance is also at direct odds with what could have been a crucially handled subplot involving his sexual orientation and his inevitable coming out of the closet.  Considering that Lee made BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, which displayed a heartfelt poignancy with its gay characters and their plight, Elliot’s arc in WOODSTOCK feels contrived and perfunctory, not to mention that when it does happen it does so in an implausible manner that lacks dramatic potency.  As liberated as the late 1960’s were, I hardly believe that any young man’s coming out would come off as simplistically and as consequence-free as Elliot’s does.  It’s almost a non-event in the film when it wants to be something more substantial.   

I guess if one peels off the layers of the film’s negative traits – like its offensive portrayals of Jews, performing artists, Vietnam vets, etc., its dodgy lack of narrative and tonal focus, some uninspiring and flat performances, its lackluster attempts at comedy, and its dawdling pacing that lacks immediacy - then perhaps one could see Ang Lee’s TAKING WOODSTOCK as a deeply inconsistent, but determined and ambitious, historical pastiche of how one small town and its people altered Max Yasgur’s 600 acre dairy farm in upstate New York  into the ultimate, psychedelic rock n’ roll Valhalla.   As disappointing as it is to not see any of the acts recreated or hear any of the actual music from the concert itself in the film (perhaps because of copyright issues), TAKING WOODSTOCK is not Joplin’s, Hendrix’s, The Who’s, or The Grateful Dead’s film: This is a film about the planners of the concert that are often in history's shadow.  On those levels, Lee makes the film an interesting dissection of the story behind a historical fabled and cherished event.  Beyond that, his usual self-composure and discipline as a director is lacking.  Worse off is that the sweetness of Elliot’s personal awakening never seems to gel well with the larger social story of the groundswell of what Woodstock became.  To his credit, Lee gets the tie-died, reefer hazed, skinny dipping counter culture details of the time correct, but TAKING WOODSTOCK nonetheless emerges as an incomplete effort and one bummer of a trip.

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