Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Review: "Taking Woodstock"

I liked everything about "Taking Woodstock" except for the concert itself. Or rather, I liked the movie up until the point the music started playing.

And that's because we already know pretty much everything there is to know about the iconic "3 Days of Peace & Music" from 1969 -- the acid trips, the rolling hills filled with people sleeping and grooving, the casual nudity, playing in the mud, etc. It is literally not possible to have lived in America over the past 40 years without being inundated with these images.

What is interesting and new are the events leading up to Woodstock, which are depicted by director Ang Lee ("Brokeback Mountain") in a fresh and vibrant manner. They deal with the tiny New York town of White Lake, which suddenly found itself host to the biggest rock concert in history. Most of the townsfolk are not happy about it, and blame the two local men responsible for bringing it there.

You may have heard of one of them, Max Yasgur, the unassuming dairy farmer (played by Eugene Levy) who hosted the Woodstock concert on his land. But many people (including me) didn't know the story of Elliot Tiber (renamed Teichberg for the film), who ran a tiny motel with his parents and played perhaps the most pivotal role in the concert happening in White Lake, or anywhere.

As played by Demetri Martin, Elliot is a timid, closeted gay youngster who lives in the Big Apple but spends most of his time helping his aged parents (Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman) run the equally decrepit El Monaco Motel. As president of the tiny local chamber of commerce, Elliot is perpetually dreaming up ways to promote the El Monaco, including an annual chamber music festival and using his barn to play host to a troupe of starving thespians with a penchant for doffing their clothes.

When Elliot gets wind that a major rock festival has been killed by the neighboring town of Wallkill, he contacts the Woodstock organizers and pitches the El Monaco to them. They reject it as too small, but make a deal with Yasgur. Soon organizers and construction guys are arriving by the dozen.

I enjoyed these scenes because they make clear what a major business venture Woodstock was -- in fact, Woodstock Ventures was the name of the company formed to put it on. The irony of an event devoted to free love being birthed entirely by people with money on the brain is delicious fare.

But once the concert starts up, the energy dissolves. Elliot wanders over to Yasgur's fields to check out the scene, and soon gets caught up in acid trips and orgies and all that.

There are a number of supporting characters, played by actors giving some adept performances. Unfortunately, they seem less like real people than contrivances of the script (by longtime Ang Lee collaborator James Schamus, based on Tiber's book).

There's Billy, a burnt-out Vietnam vet played by Emile Hirsch who keeps wading through flashbacks, and Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff), the Zen-like concert organizer who acts as if he knows something no one else does. The most artificial figure is Liev Schreiber as Vilma, a cross-dressing tough who provides security and dispenses assuring platitudes.

Elliot's parents seem like they want to be at the center of the story, but keep getting shunted to the periphery. Mrs. Teichburg has a penny-pinching mania that drives a wedge between the family, but the film never bothers to explore the source of her obsession.

Lee and Schamus should have forgotten about Woodstock, and stayed at the El Monaco.

2.5 stars

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