"TAKING WOODSTOCK" : A LONG, STRANGE TRIP
Picture this: New York, 1969. Clean-cut, nice Jewish boy-next-door Elliot Teichberg (AKA Elliot Tiber, played by stand-up comedian turned actor Demetri Martin) is an artist living in New York City. His parents are the owners of a third-rate, broken down motel in The Catskills, and we learn that they're on the verge of losing that motel. When the permit for a music festival called Woodstock (featuring Joan Baez, The Who, Country Joe and the Fish, and more) in the town of Wallkill is pulled, a light bulb goes off above Elliot's head: Why not have the festival on his parents' land? With a little help from his friends (including producer Michael Lang, played by angel-faced Jonathan Groff; and neighbor Max Yasgur-- a Eugene Levy-like character played by Eugene Levy), the event is greenlighted, the word is spread, and before you can say "Don't bogart that joint, my friend... pass it over to me!", the tiny town of White Lake, New York, is brimming with thousands of colorful, beautiful people psyched up for three days of peace and music. According to one of the characters in the movie, "There's half a million people here, and another million are trying to get in!"
"Taking Woodstock", released to time in with Woodstock's 40th anniversary, is actually two movies meshed together. "The First Movie" is a comedy-drama based on Elliot Teichberg's real-life memoirs, with Woodstock-- and the changing culture at large it represents-- as the backdrop. Along the way, family secrets are revealed, sexuality is explored (Elliot bonds in a big way with a construction worker over a Judy Garland album. Hmmm...), and life will ostensibly never be the same for Elliot, his parents, or pop culture again. "The Second Movie" is a sprawling, almost documentary-style film about Woodstock itself. And, Ang Lee seems hellbent to bring us ALL of it: the music, the drugs, the politics, the anti-war attitude, the newly-exploding liberated attitude about sexuality, the "us-versus-them" attitude, and even such interesting deets such as the rain (and mud), and the lack of, shall we say, "facilities" at the festival. In possibly an homage to another iconic filmmaker, Andy Warhol, Lee features a few split-screen scenes, with two or three scenes competing for the audience's attention at the same time-- a la Warhol's "Chelsea Girls". Lee's commitment to bringing us every last detail-- with lengthy montages and an endless batch of groovy supporting characters and subplots-- is admirable. We even suspect that some enticing subplots, like Elliot's dabbling in New York City's budding gay rights movement, may have wound up on the cutting room floor. But it's just too much. At two hours, the movie feels like four. This reviewer can't help but wonder if The Second Movie may have worked better as a museum exhibit with mini-movies of Lee's gorgeous cinematography... or perhaps even doing "Taking Woodstock" in two volumes, a la "Kill Bill".
Among a huge cast, Imelda Staunton as Elliot's mother stands out as yet another variation of The Jewish Mother caricature-- a very funny variation. Other actors really get it right too-- like Emile Hirsch as Billy, a PTSD-suffering soldier just returned from Vietnam; and Liev Schreiber as Vilma, a take-no-shit transgendered Korean War veteran. Others actors don't quite get it. As Elliot, Demitri Martin is cute but bland; every personal catharsis, from his LSD drug trip in an RV to his blossoming sexuality, come across as V-E-R-Y downplayed. Jonathan Groff, as Michael Lang, seems otherworldly-- more like a CGI than a real character. And, intentionally or not, most of the characters get weighed down by the sheer weight of the event going on around them.
"Taking Woodstock"'s biggest asset is its tie dye-colored, behind-the-scenes-style perspective of how Woodstock went from being just another concert for profit to a huge "free" show (Thanks to all the crashers!) and subsequent cultural phenomenon... and it wasn't always a smooth ride. Woodstock alumni, now pushing or in their 60's, are usually every protective of that event; they may unfairly dismiss any film about Woodstock with a "You had to be there!" attitude. Watching "Taking Woodstock" won't make you feel like you were there, but it's an earnest homage nevertheless. As for those of us born too late to remember bra burning, we may even come to realize that just maybe, our ex-hippie parents and grandparents just may have been at a lot more cool than we want to believe...
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