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:

TAKING WOODSTOCK
(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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It Was 40 Years Ago Today: Re-watching Woodstock

“It’s really amazing. It looks like some kind of Biblical, epochal unbelievable scene!”
Jerry Garcia (The Grateful Dead)

“A bunch of stupid slobs in the mud.”
– Grace Slick (The Jefferson Airplane)

Yeah, Woodstock divides folks – even folks supposedly on the same side. Whatever your feelings on the famous Woodstock Festival, currently celebrating its 40th anniversary, it’s impossible to deny its lasting impact and cultural importance. For a number of reasons * I felt like re-watching the movie that was made of the event that fateful weekend. I’ve seen it before a number of times -usually on anniversaries it seems. I remember a party in ’99 with it on in the background via VH1 and I remember seeing it constantly on the monitor of the video store I was working at in ’89.

* One of which being the upcoming release of Ang Lee’s TAKING WOODSTOCK featuring comedian Demetri Martin as Elliot Tiber who came in at the last minute to offer his property for the event after it was banned from its original location.

I just borrowed my brother’s DVD of it from the late 90’s – as Martin Scorsese, who was assistant editor on the project, said the film “has shape-shifted quite a bit over the years” so I felt I was fine with the 1994 “Director’s Cut” and didn’t need to shell out for the new lavish 40th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition for an anniversary re-viewing you know? This was an old school DVD – it didn’t even have a proper menu and the video quality was pretty VHS but that’s apt because that’s how I saw it originally so screw digital remasterings! For now anyway.

The film makers had some fun with the standard ratings disclaimer at the beginning of the film – the “R” starts to ignite at the sound of Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” guitar solo.

It extends to the word “Restricted” which quickly goes up in flames and the implication is clear – this movie is fiery cataclysmic stuff, watch out. That notion though disappears rapidly once you see laid back shots of farm fields and hippie folk arriving to take them over. Workers building the stage and setting up sound equipment while people arrive – some in colorfully painted vehicles, some on foot climbing through holes in the fence.

This all goes on a bit too long as it’s a while before we see an actual live performer. We hear studio versions of Crosby, Stills & Nash and Canned Heat tunes with a split screen image showing simultaneously Michael Lang talking to a reporter from ABC News while the second half of the screen shows the unwashed masses making their way through paths of parked cars and campers.

24 minutes into it, Richie Havens is the first performer. He does his hard acoustic guitar strumming thing on a few songs, stopping in between to tell the audience that the next day the whole world will read about how groovy they were. Out of sight, man! From there we see Wavy Gravy (still going by the name Hugh Romney **) mulling about hamming it up and then hear his announcement that the acid circulating is not poison – it’s just been poorly manufactured.

** For more on this see Michele Esrick’s excellent documentary about Wavy Gravy coming soon to a theater near you: SAINT MISBEHAVIN’.

This is where I get weary of reporting on everything in this already well reported movie and will just hit the highlights (or lowlights) as I saw them:

The Who’s bombastically beautiful “See Me, Feel Me” and “Summertime Blues” performance shakes things up after Joan Baez’s stoic stance of an act.

The audience is blown away by Joe Cocker’s ferocious “With A Little Help From My Friends” Beatles cover (wonderfully parodied by John Belushi on SNL Oct. 25th, 1975).

Jeez, there’s way too much drum circle footage combined with people running and sliding in the mud after the infamous downpour that the crowds tried to stop with a chant: “No rain -no rain!” Doubt this bit was what won the film a “Best Documentary” Oscar.

The most treacly bit: John Sebastian solo acoustic singing his song “Younger Generation” concluding by saying “That kid’s gonna be far out.”

Jimi Hendrix’s set is definitely the highlight of the entire event – despite that he was the last performer and it was early Monday morning and most of the massive crowd had left.

Hendrix’s mind bending take on “The Star Spangled Banner” is the bit that alone singed the “R” rating above. The set is available separately and for good reason.

When all is said and done in my book (or on my blog) there’s just this music on record that lasts from this colassally overwrought event: The Who, Sly and The Family Stone, Joe Cocker, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix. The rest is pretty iffy. For example: none of the Grateful Dead’s set has ever been released because it sucked – as band members have repeatedly alleged. And who invited Sha Na Na?

As a cultural historical document WOODSTOCK is essential, however as a fun rock concert movie it is bogged down with an unnecessary hyper significance – I found myself siding with Grace Slick’s quote above most of the time watching it. It’s an event ripe for major cherry picking – in this era of ripping a decent mix could be made of this but I may suggest alternatives like FESTIVAL EXPRESS and WATTSTAX for more consistent goodies. Just sayin’.

More later…

Full Frame Documentary Film Fest 2009: The Fourth And Final Day

It was another nice Spring day outside in downtown Durham, but, as more than one person remarked, it was a much nicer day to be inside the Carolina Theater watching movies. I had had very sleep as I trekked back to enter yet another screening room so I was running on sheer momentum. Luckily I got my wind fully restored with this morning’s film:

WILLIAM KUNSTLER: DISTURBING THE UNIVERSE (Dirs. Emily & Sarah Kunstler, 2009)

“Where there’s controversy, there’s William Kunstler” went Phil Donahue’s introduction of the noted radical lawyer on one of his many appearances on Donahue’s old TV show. That was one of the biggest understatements made in this incredibly involving bio-doc made by Kunstler’s daughters Emily and Sarah who were thankfully here in town today to present their work. From Civil Rights sit-ins to the notorious Chicago 7 trial, then the Attica riots and the Wounded Knee uprising to the…well, you get the picture – Kunstler was a fighting figure of change who would not compromise. His story is empowering to the nth degree, made even more powerfully personal by the definition of labor of love that his daughters have brought. One of Kunstler’s former clients – Yusef Salaam, one of the Central Park Five, also appeared for the after film Q & A.

Then it was time for the Awards BBQ at the Durham Armory. The big winner was an entry from Denmark: BURMA VJ. It won the Anne Dellinger Grand Jury Award, the Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Award, and the Full Frame/Working Films Award. Since that was one I had missed I was elated that it was going to be re-screened that afternoon as were 5 other of the winners (click here for a complete list of what won). So this was my final film of the Festival:

BURMA VJ: REPORTING FROM A CLOSED COUNTRY (Dir. Andres Østergaard, 2008)

This harrowing work of video journalists capturing the 2007 protests in Burma by thousands of Buddhist monks definitely deserved all the acclaim that it got here. I mean it’s one thing to follow Wavy Gravy around with a camera but to risk one’s life to get footage of oppressive military action so that the whole world could be informed is a gigantic world of difference. A riveting and disturbing experience that will be hard to shake for a while I believe, BURMA VJ displays the recordings that were smuggled out of the country with the voice-over narration of a source only identified as “Joshua”. With its awards at Full Frame, Sundance, and the Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival, it’s a shoe-in for a wide release so please keep on the lookout. As vivid and vital as a motion picture depicting real events can be, it is not to be missed.

The Festival is over and I’m already looking forward to next year. Stay tuned for more in depth reviews of some of the films covered here in months to come. A number of these documentaries haven’t been picked up for distribution yet so I’m hoping to get the word out on this round of really great (for the most part, that is) films.

More later…

Full Frame Documentary Film Fest 2009: Day Two

The sky cleared and the sun came out for the 2nd day of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in downtown Durham. Bigger crowds came out too as it was Friday and more folks were free for the weekend. My post for the day will be shorter and not very in depth because it’s been a long day and I’m very tired. I’ll post full reviews of particular notable films in the near future (or at least a little more in depth than here) so please stay tuned. For now though these are my highlights for Day Two:

THE KINDA SUTRA (Dir. Jessica Wu, 2008)

This 8 minute short isn’t really a documentary but a half animated featurette built around interviews with various people about how they first understood sex as children. Too cutesy for my taste really, but amusing nonetheless.

SAINT MISBEHAVIN’: THE WAVY GRAVY MOVIE (Dir. Michelle Esrick, 2008) Now this is more like it! Upon entering the theater (Fletcher Hall) I was handed a red styrofoam clown nose. A suitable piece of swag for this rollicking (and rocking) bio-doc of the infamous poet turned Merry Prankster turned wacky activist/clown. Absolutely a gloriously funny and educating portrait from start to finish, it was capped off by having the man himself (below, 3rd from right) appear onstage with his wife (Jahanara Romney), director Esrick, cinematographer Daniel B. Gold, composer Daniel B. Gold, and documentatian God D.A. Pennebaker (who executive produced). Expect more bloggin’ ’bout this soon because it stands as one of my favorites of the festival.

THE YES MEN FIX THE WORLD (Dirs. Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, 2009) A great afternoon of premium infotainment continued with this hilarious docu romp through the anti-globalization activist antics of the Yes Men (Bichlbaum & Bonanno). Maskuerading as spokespeople for corporations or government run businesses they believe are corrupt (Dow Chemical, HUD, ExxonMobil, etc.) provides a puncheant platform for skyscraping satire. Definitely so far the film in the Fest with the biggest laughs I’ve seen as the riotous audience proved over and over.

SNEAK PREVIEW: FIXER: THE TAKING OF AJMAL NAQSHBANDI (Dir. Ian Olds, 2009) A straight forward telling of the Taliban kidnapping “fixer” (someone hired by foreign journalists to facilitate, translate, and gain access for their stories) Ajmal Naqshbandi and an Italian journalist. Much casual footage of Naqshbandi was taken in the months before his murder which made for a compelling, if at times hard to stomach, viewing (several people walked out).

BEETLE QUEEN CONQUERS TOYKO (Dir. Jessica Oreck, 2009) Beautiful but boring. The question of why the Japanese are so fascinated with beetles is answered with an attempt at visual poetry that while lush was severely sleep inducing – which is where I should be now.

Okay! I have now got to get some rest for tomorrow. Day Three of Full Frame looks pretty promising – will let you know how it goes.

More later…