Friday, August 28, 2009

Taking Woodstock

I suppose it’s fitting to have Ang Lee direct a film about (arguably) the most culturally defining 3 days in modern American history.  As a foreigner, he’s proven his knowledge of the Americana lifestyle with his powerful, 70s-set The Ice Storm, and his masterful Brokeback Mountain.  And lest we forget Lee’s immaculate foreign films; the commanding Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the equally good, but little seen, Lust, Caution.
So, a film like Taking Woodstock seems right up Lee’s alley.  But somewhere along with the way this gimmicky true story turns into a real film bore.
Elliot Teichberg was feeling no love in the summer of ‘69.  With his family’s dump of a motel close to being shut down, and his personal profession of interior design on the frits, Elliot soon put all his action into getting a troubled concert up and running.  The concert in question, you see, had been shut down twice, but with names like Joplin, Hendrix and the Who, Elliot’s interest was piqued.
That’s essentially what Taking Woodstock is about. Preparing for this slight concert that, overnight, turns into a half-a-million-turnout phenomenon.  (Why Taking Woodstock?  Why not Making Woodstock?).  We stick with Elliot (Demetri Martin) and his Jewish immigrant parents (Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman), as they prepare and quickly adjust to the hysteria. 
The initial fault of the film is its lack of focus.  There are several subplots that never fully play out.  We get tidbits of Elliot’s homosexuality, his mother’s obsession with money, the town’s rebellion of the concert, a troubled Nam vet (as played in caricature by Emile Hirsch), a security-enabled transvestite (Liev Schreiber) and so on.  Problem is, I really know nothing about these people, why they are the way they are, or what they are going to do after the lights come up.  And if I don’t know, then I don’t care.
Forced acting doesn’t help, either.  The film anchors on Martin, but it’s too much weight for him, as is evident in his few dramatic scenes.  Fine actors Hirsch and Staunton are both laughable and unconvincing.  Even the film’s few spirited performances, by Schreiber, Eugene Levy (as the neighbor that rented his land for the concert) and Jonathan Groff (as the bare-chested, hippie mastermind), aren’t enough to save the movie.
The real Elliot, even though he lived a mile from where Woodstock took place, didn’t get to see any of the show.  And while that’s ironic from an historical standpoint, it doesn’t make for compelling cinema.  So if it’s music you’re after, rent Woodstock, 3 Days of Peace and Music, Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 breathtaking documentary, because you sure as hell won’t get any from Lee’s film.
I know it’s only September but truth be told, Taking Woodstock will be one of the biggest disappointments of 2009.  And although it may not be fair to judge a director based on his previous films, it’s all we as an audience have to go on.  Hopefully Lee’s next venture will be a return to form.  D+

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