TAKING WOODSTOCK: The Film Babble Blog Review

On Monday I announced a TAKING WOODSTOCK giveway (soundtracks, t-shirts, air-fresheners) – go here for information. I’ll be taking answers until September 6th so get those entries in! Now onto the movie:

(Dir. Ang Lee, 2009)

In his first starring role, with eyes that look like the sewn-on big brown button eyes from the movie CORALINE, comedian Demetri Martin finds himself smack dab in the middle of the wheeling and dealing behind one of the biggest rock festivals in history. For Martin as Elliot Tiber, a closeted artist who manages his parents’ struggling motel, this all begins as a whim one day in the summer of 1969. Hearing that officials for the town of Wallkill banned the concert from its original location, he cold calls Woodstock Ventures armed with the only musical festival permit in the entire town of Bethel, New York. Almost immediately promoter Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) and company arrive by helicopter to a nude welcoming via the avant garde theater troupe (led by Dan Fogler) that live in the barn behind the motel. Unfortunately, Martin’s land, a swamp really, isn’t suitable for concert grounds but there happens to be a farm with a lot of land just up the road owned by dairy farmer Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy in a nicely laid back performance) that just might do.

It’s tempting to ditch the plot summary here and just say ‘and the rest is history’ but there’s so many endearing details in this low key but extremely likable film to address. Using the same split screen techniques of the original concert documentary WOODSTOCK, Lee has the look and feel down completely. Some shots look so amazingly like footage from the actual event that I was amazed to find out that none was used. There are no actors playing the musicians because the action never gets that close to the stage – miles away Martin navigates through the huge crowd, taking part in the mud slides and indulging in psychedelics with the music blaring off in the the distance but he never gets up close and personal with the performers and perhaps that’s the point.

There are some mis-strokes, such as a traumatized Vietnam vet played by Emile Hirsch and a smug Liev Scheiber as a gun totting transvestite providing security. These are unnecessary devices in an already overstuffed scenario. Some of Martin’s exchanges with his parents (Immelda Stanton and Henry Goodman) are far from fleshed out as well but this doesn’t kill the film’s beautiful buzz. I could also overlook the historical errors. For example, Wavy Gravy is mentioned but at Woodstock he was still Hugh Romney, he wasn’t dubbed Wavy Gravy till 2 weeks later at the Texas International Pop Festival. Also the real life Michael Lang disputes that Tiber introduced him to Yasgur to get the ball rolling but again I can let these things go and bet you can too.

Overall the humor (“Charging a dollar for water? Can you believe that?”) and heart of this project are in the right place, with cynicism not being allowed entry. I’ve written before about whether or not Woodstock lives up to its legend, and I feel that Ang Lee’s film here isn’t interested in taking a stand. It’s content with a simple story about a few days that changed a man’s life (you could be forgiven in not knowing that Martin is dealing with his homosexuality – it sure isn’t an element they’re advertising in the trailers).

In my favorite sequence Martin gets a ride from a sympathetic motorcycle cop into what Scheiber calls “the center of the universe” (actually despite what I said above – Scheiber does have his moments). Martin then meets a hippy couple (Paul Dano and Kelli Garner) and takes LSD with them. Martin’s already big pupils get bigger as he watches the colors from posters, crystals, and assorted paisley accoutrements swirl around the walls of their VW bus. It’s a scene that could be so clichéd – the obligatory trippy scene – but Lee, here and in the rest of the film, sincerely just wants us to soak up the sights and sounds and be soothed by them. Dark clouds were on the horizon for the Woodstock generation but for one brief moment the light of possibility was blinding. Lee captures that dying light and gives us a film that gives off great vibes.

More later…

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