Not Much Story to Tell in Taking Woodstock
- Friday, August 28, 2009
DVD Release Date: December 15, 2009
Theatrical Release Date: August 28, 2009
Rating: R (for graphic nudity, strong language, drug use and some sexual content)
Run Time: 110 min.
Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Demetri Martin, Imelda Staunton, Henry Goodman, Eugene Levy, Liev Schreiber, Jonathan Groff
On the 40th anniversary of the summer that brought us both the Moon landing and Woodstock, it's telling which event Hollywood chose to make a film about.
Okay, I'll grant that the Apollo missions have been dramatized many times over the years while Woodstock has had maybe one notable documentary. It's therefore understandable that filmmakers would want to tell the story we haven't seen before. Now with Taking Woodstock we have that story and, come to find out, there's not much to tell.
By the end, despite some worthy craftsmanship, this look at how it all came to be actually has the inverse effect of its likely intent: it makes Woodstock feel less historically significant, not more. Rather than comprehending the festival's impact, one is instead left with a rather underwhelming impression, even so far as to wonder, "So that was the event that defined a generation? Really? That one?!" I mean you'd have to be high to think … oh, wait.
Based on the memoir by Elliot Tiber, Taking Woodstock is the story of how young Elliot Teichberg (Tiber's original last name) overcame resistance from both family and community to bring what would become the biggest concert event in history to a small New York town. A young college-grad art designer in NYC, Elliot would spend weekends in rural Bethel, NY helping his parents manage their rundown motel while also serving as president of the local Chamber of Commerce. After hearing that nearby Walkill, NY denied a permit for a big Music and Art Festival, Elliot saw an opportunity to help both the motel and the town by using his authority to grant a permit to Woodstock's promoters.
Of course, granting the permit was the easy part. The actual implementation was much more difficult as the event wasn't only a logistical nightmare but also a clash of cultures (both geographical and generational). It's a seemingly fertile milieu of dramatic conflict and thematic richness, yet the film's biggest surprise is how little there is of either (and especially the latter).
Nothing more than a glorified episode of Behind the Music, Taking Woodstock offers only a familiar and expected behind-the-scenes account of how a festival comes together, and offers nothing to really think about or take with you. I use the term "glorified" intentionally to emphasize the film's lone strength—the aesthetic. An earthy visual texture and pastel desaturation blends seamlessly with (or at least perfectly duplicates) archival footage, Danny Elfman's acoustic score sounds as if laid straight to an old Hi-Fi track (complete with an aged, warbled quality) and a few flimsy wigs and fake beards aside, most people look authentic to the time.
Beyond the surface representation, however, director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain; Sense & Sensibility) offers little beyond the hippie stereotype. Indeed, that stereotype is often heightened as that's all there really is to work with. There are a few effectively tender moments between Elliot and his traditional Russian-Jewish immigrant parents (Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman provide nice emotional layers to these character-rich roles), but beyond that everyone else—from the hippie organizer to the artsy free-spirited drama troupe to the transgender head of security—is nothing more than a cliché.
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