Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Some critics reviewed Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock as if it were meant to be an out-and-out comedy, an approach that's going to make this amusing but not overwhelming comedy-drama look like a failure. Anything about hippies these days seems to have reverted back to the "look at the funny freaks" school of pointless satire, and Ang Lee's picture certainly has its fun with the (stereo)type. Once upon a time, oh, I'd say between 1967 and 1971, armies of longhaired kids roamed the wilds of America, saying things like "far out" and "right on". I know a couple of die-hards that still talk that way, but they have California as a valid excuse.
Taking Woodstock is from a book by Elliot Tiber, who is also the film's main character, a Jewish-American New Yorker who left home for the art scene in Manhattan. Now Elliot (Demetri Martin) is back in the Bethel / White Lake countryside trying to help his parents Jake and Sonia (Henry Goodman & Imelda Staunton keep their
tourist resort wretched run-down motel going in the face of crushing debt. A local activist type, Elliot is the head of the do-nothing Chamber of Congress. He issues his parents a permit for an arts festival in the hopes of generating something to draw the tourist trade. So far all Elliot has is the "Earthlight Players", a pack of flaky avant-garde exhibitionists living in the barn, coming out only to beg for food. Elliot hears that another township has revoked its permits for a proposed music festival, and writes to see whether promoter Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) is interested in his parent's property. Lang and his entourage show up immediately -- by helicopter -- and turn down the motel's swampland ... but the fast-thinking Elliot puts the extraordinarily mellow Lang in contact with Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy), a local dairy farmer with the perfect hillside property. The Woodstock Music & Art Fair is about to make history.
Director Lee and screenwriter James Schamus delight in showing the Woodstock circus turning Elliot's town upside down. When the outraged locals discover that the permit is unbreakable, Elliot becomes a pariah to his neighbors, all except the mellow Max Yasgur. With Lang's company depositing a fortune in the town bank, nobody's shutting down anything. It's highly entertaining watching verbal contracts being re-negotiated, as Yasgur ups his price from 5,000 dollars to over a hundred grand, with a bond to guarantee clean-up. In quick succession we meet promoter Lang's army of engineers, who work out ways to power the performing stage without electrocuting people. Elliot seemingly hits it off with a female production liaison, only to reveal himself as preferring the company of a male audio expert.
Faster than you can say "whole lotta freaks", the motel is bought out for the summer, rigged with phones and practically rebuilt by Lang's crew. The production people are task-minded pros but a regular carnival of music fans and drifters begins to form. The Earthlight Players are already as freaky as they come; every show they perform seems to involve taking their clothes off.
As for Elliot and his parents, the experience is completely transformative. With the financial pressure lifted Dad learns how to smile again and go crazy with his customers; the only problem is keeping enough liquor available behind his bar. Even Elliot's mother Sonia backs off somewhat from her belligerent, obnoxious stance. Although she ends up dancing in the rain with her husband, her painful need for security reveals a secret that convinces Elliot that it's time to move on.
Some critics harped on the pun of the title, and an argument can be made that Taking Woodstock spends much of its effort "taking inventory" of the flower power years. We've got reactionary NIMBYS, greedy bankers and bigoted shopkeepers. Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild) plays the regulation disturbed Vietnam Vet. Liev Schreiber is amusing as a hulking transvestite ex-Marine who volunteers to help Elliot with security problems, although he's hardly needed. When a couple of mobster goombahs try to muscle in on the motel's financial bonanza, Jake and Sonia attack like a pair of crazed wolverines.
A running gag (more like a running observation) is that Elliot is so immersed in crazy partying around the motel that he gets to the concert only momentarily. The blissed-out legions of attendees are totally peaceful, so much so that a charmed highway patrolman offers Elliot a ride down the clogged highway. Elliot's biggest thrill is the night he spends dropping acid with a couple of idealized hippies in their love-pad microbus. The handsomely designed scene is so stylized, it almost becomes a counterculture American Express Ad. LSD isn't the same thing as a ticket to Yellow Submarine.
As for the concert itself, the film stays teasingly remote. We hear a few snatches of music from about a mile away. Ang Lee "touches base" with things we recognize from the Michael Wadleigh movie: an electrified stage, Wavy Gravy seen walking from behind, Porta-San commodes, slip-sliding in the mud, the first-aid tents to receive bum-trippers. Taking Woodstock gets a lot of things right, especially the behind-the-scenes mechanics, but at times it seems like it's trying to touch on too many things. The poster's flower-power title graphic unfortunately reminds us of "groovy" comedies about drug use, so some audiences may have expected Taking Woodstock to be a raunchy comedy. The Elliott Tiber character is a refreshingly mild, ordinary kind of guy, but he's not quite strong enough to hold the center.
Like, Ang Lee's production is a beautiful thing, man. A corps of digital artists are credited but I was only fully aware of their work on obvious money shots of the Woodstock stage seen from afar, and in Elliot's wild acid trip in the microbus, where all the black-light posters come to life. A trippy show, and not a bad one considering how many years have passed since the events in question ... I'm ready to see it again. 1
Universal's Blu-ray of Taking Woodstock pops to colorful life in HD, going up the country to green fields where the wild hippies grow in all their natural plumage. The uncompressed audio track has plenty of surprises, with Danny Elfman's score mingling with plenty of pop needle-drops from the era. The film's audioscape gives us the proper feeling that we're down the road and over the hill from the concert, with audio echoing in from afar.
Ang Lee and James Schamus provide a commentary on the film, discussing its origin and their approach to adapting Tiber and Monte's book. A less focused featurette Peace, Love and Cinema takes up the task of doing basic education on Woodstock, going over the same issues yet again. One early dialogue bite blithely says that the concert was the beginning of the end of the Vietnam War, a clueless claim if I ever heard one. Later on the piece has more interesting things to say and show about the production. Several deleted scenes round out Universal's handsome package.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Taking Woodstock Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good +
Supplements: Commentary, featurette, deleted scenes.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 13, 2009
1. The English director Alan Parker made a number of obnoxiously superficial trifles about uniquely American topics: Mississippi Burning, Fame, The Road to Wellville) Watching them is difficult because each seems to understand nothing about its subject. It's too easy to generalize and conclude that Ang Lee's American-set films are beset with a similar foreign-viewpoint problem, although complaints that Taking Woodstock is equally superficial may have merit. The fine performances and Ang Lee's direction redeem this Peace 'n' Love comedy drama for me.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson
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