August 27, 2009

Taking Woodstock

From now on, you can call me Mr. Naomi Watts

Grade: B –

Director: Ang Lee

Starring: Demetri Martin, Imelda Staunton, Henry Goodman, Emile Hirsch, Eugene Levy, and Liev Schreiber

MPAA Rating: R

Running Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

Like an acid trip, Taking Woodstock conjures an illusion of enlightenment that it ultimately fails to deliver. Based on Elliot Tiber’s 2007 memoir of the same name, the film follows the ostensibly true, behind-the-scenes account of the struggles to organize and stage the Woodstock Festival of 1969.

Elliot then-Teichberg (Demetri Martin) is an aspiring Greenwich Village interior designer helping his hardscrabble Jewish-émigré parents, Jake (Henry Goodman) and Sonia (Imelda Staunton), manage a ramshackle roadside motel in Bethel, New York. Upon reading that the plug has been pulled on the planned Woodstock music festival in neighboring Wallkill, Elliott parlays his local permit to put on an annual music and arts festival into an invitation for concert organizers to relocate their event to Max Yasgur’s dairy farm.

The rest, as they say, is history. Director Ang Lee, however, barely scratches the surface of the wider societal dynamics that gave rise to the iconic event. Lee, like many, assigns excessive import to Woodstock itself as a singular change agent, failing to recognize that it was merely the contextual offshoot of an entire decade of social and cultural upheaval.

Instead, Lee focuses primarily on how the Teichbergs’ financial Woodstock windfall spared their family farm and business from imminent foreclosure, by metaphor preserving their piece of the American Dream. And, the director illuminates the way in which the communal effect generated by hordes of hippie concert goers, including a transvestite named Vilma (Liev Schreiber in a fine performance), liberates the Teichbergs from their myopic lives and, more specifically, unleashes Elliot’s Uranian tendencies.

There’s an entertaining, albeit sitcom charm to Lee’s narrative and camerawork, which periodically utilizes the split-screen technique Michael Wadleigh employed in his seminal documentary, Woodstock. And, he does not recreates any of the musical performances (they merely reverberate as distant echoes), recognizing that the real legend lies in everything that surrounded it. But, a bland video tour through a mélange of protest groups, hallucinogenic mind-trips, and other ‘60s tropes hardly tells the larger tale.

There are several instances in which Taking Woodstock comes close to transcending its shackled tableau. In depicting the strong negative reaction by Bethel’s conservative, small-town inhabitants, Lee niftily interjects the culture war that was at the heart of the hippie movement. Lee also lays bare the financial machinations behind Woodstock’s organizers, including Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff), who always travel armed with paper bags full of cash and a battalion of suited, attaché-equipped attorneys. “What happens now?,” Elliot asks Lang as they survey the muddy, litter-strewn post-concert scene. “Everyone will probably get lawyers and sue each other,” Lang correctly predicts.

Then, in the film’s final scene, Lang references an upcoming follow-up concert in California headlined by the Rolling Stones that he hopes will perpetuate Woodstock’s spirit of peace and music. Taking place only four months after Woodstock (indeed, during the closing month of the turbulent 1960s), the riotous, violent Altamont festival would come to symbolize the nadir, if not death, of the hippie movement, something all the nostalgia-soaked mythmaking that drives efforts like Taking Woodstock can never resurrect.

Neil Morris

No comments: