A film review by Craig J. Koban September 1, 2009
2009, R, 120 mins.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.