Taking Woodstock

Demitri Martin, Eugene Levy has only three words for ya: Second City Television.

(Focus) Demetri Martin, Emile Hirsch, Imelda Staunton, Liev Schreiber, Eugene Levy, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Henry Goodman, Jonathan Groff, Mamie Gummer, Paul Dano, Kelli Garner, Adam Pally. Directed by Ang Lee

From August 15 through August 18, 1969 a festival billed as “three days of peace and music” took center stage in the universe of the counterculture. It remains the granddaddy of all rock festivals, the touchstone to which all other large-scale festivals are inevitably compared. My brother-in-law Jim Ivey was one of the half million in attendance and has the ticket stubs to prove it; if you went by the number of people who claimed they were there, millions of people were at Max Yasgur’s dairy farm that day. The festival is known simply as Woodstock.

Elliott Teichberg (Martin) is an interior designer in Greenwich Village whose parents Jake (Goodman) and Sonia (Staunton) own a dilapidated hotel in White Lake, New York near the bucolic town of Bethel. The hotel is gradually going broke, run to ground by his parents’ inability to run even basic maintenance and his mother’s abrasive personality and unbridled greed.

He doubles as the head of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce, authorizing permits for the city. He has a counterculture theatrical company, the Earthlight Players, taking up residency in his barn and is planning a music festival where he’ll essentially spin records to inert townspeople on the lawn of the hotel.

None of this is doing any good. The bank is about to foreclose; they have managed to finagle enough time to last the summer, but that’s it. His parents, Holocaust survivors, they’ve gone through quite a bit and as unpleasant as Sonia is, Elliott still worries.

When he hears that the organizers of a large-scale music festival have been denied permits in Walkill, New York, he recognizes the golden opportunity to save the hotel. A festival with big name performers will draw people who will fill the hotel for the weekend but also serve as a headquarters for the festival. The festival’s organizers, Michael Lang (Groff) and Artie Kornfeld (Pally), come in with a bit of a flourish and the laid-back Lang instantly takes to Elliott. When the hotel property proves to be inadequate for the size of the crowds the organizers are expected, Elliott introduces Lang and Kornfeld to Max Yasgur (Levy), a dairy farmer who is sympathetic to the idea of a rock festival.

The rest of the town, not so much. The most vocal of these is Dan (Morgan), a man whose son Billy (Hirsch) came back from Vietnam shell-shocked and broken. He feels the hippies are disrespectful to the country that his son gave so much for. The tension between the townies and the hippies (including Max and Elliott in the eyes of the town) is palpable.

Against all odds, the festival comes together; even the weather conspired against them. In the process, Elliott comes to terms with his parents and makes the decision to follow his own heart.

Ang Lee is one of the most gifted directors in the world. One of my all-time favorite movies is the Taiwanese director’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. His other films – The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain, Eat Drink Man Woman among others – are always compelling, even the ones that are less successful. Here, he captures the essence of the festival nicely. He made the decision to put almost no emphasis on the music; the actual concert takes place off-screen and the only time music from the festival. Instead, he concentrates on the backstage elements behind the festival; after all, the music and the concert were already well-documented in Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock which is paid homage to in several places during the course of the movie.

Martin is best-known as a stand-up comedian and he’s a very good one. Strangely, even though this is a comedy, his role is more or less as a straight man. His deadpan stand-up delivery is mirrored here; the role is very low-key but is nonetheless still compelling. Staunton and Goodman give high-powered performances and Levy is surprisingly solid in a straight dramatic role. Schreiber shows up about halfway through the film and nearly steals the movie as the transgendered security guard Vilma. He is working on a level most of the other actors don’t attain, at least in this movie.

Sadly, the movie is a bit of a jumble. The performances are fine but they seem to be all coming from different movies. There’s no cohesion, no sense of unity; there are times you feel like you’re channel surfing while watching a single movie. That’s not a good feeling.

The movie is based on the memoirs of Elliott Tiber (renamed Teichberg here for some reason) whose version of events has been disputed by the real Michael Lang. The movie is not meant to be a documentary-like representation of what really happened; I get the feeling that Lee was attempting to replicate the spirit of Woodstock and illustrate just what a miracle it was that it got staged at all.

Woodstock remains a cultural touchstone for us even now, more than forty years after the fact. It is not only a symbol of a time, place and a movement; it remains a beacon of hope that the ideals of a generation may someday be adopted by a nation. Woodstock means different things for different people but regardless of how it makes you feel, nearly every person in the Western world is aware of its significance. This isn’t the movie that properly honors the event and I couldn’t tell you (having not been at the real one) if this gives you a sense of being there yourself. Still, it was insightful enough – and visually compelling enough – to make it worth a mild recommendation.

WHY RENT THIS: Even in his worst movies, Lee has a marvelous visual sense that borders on the poetic. Martin makes for an intriguing lead.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie is a bit of a jumble; the performances, while well-acted aren’t really cohesive and feels like the movie is made up of a series of unrelated vignettes.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a whole lot of drug use and nudity (hey, it was the Sixties after all) and some rough language; may be a little too much for younger folk to handle.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: No actual footage from Woodstock was used; while many of the events depicted here actually happened, they were all re-enacted for the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A featurette entitled “Peace, Love and Cinema” not only does the usual happy-handed behind-the-scenes lovefest there are also interviews with the real people being portrayed in the movie.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Rudo y Cursi

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3 thoughts on “Taking Woodstock

    • Thank you very much; glad that you have found some movies on the site worth checking out. I do think Taking Woodstock is beautifully shot and worth seeing on that level, but it is certainly flawed from a story standpoint. I’d also like to urge my readers to check out Picknmixflix for reviews on movies outside the mainstream, many of which are on my own wishlist to see. I’ve included the link on my list of external links, so do give the site a look (after you’re done checking mine out of course)!

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