TAKING WOODSTOCK (director: Ang Lee; screenwriters: James Schamus/based on the book “Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert, and a Life” by Elliot Tiber with Tom Monte; cinematographer: Eric Gautier; editor: Tim Squyres; music: Danny Elfman; cast: Demetri Martin (Elliot), Dan Fogler (Devon), Henry Goodman (Jake Teichberg), Jonathan Groff (Michael Lang), Eugene Levy (Max Yasgur), Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Dan), Imelda Staunton (Sonia Teichberg), Paul Dano (VW Guy), Kelli Garner (VW Girl), Mamie Gummer (Tisha), Emile Hirsch (Billy), Liev Schreiber (Vilma); Runtime: 120; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Ang Lee/James Schamus/Celia Costas; Focus Features; 2009)
“Aside from a few electric moments this is mostly a slow-moving, flat and unimpressive film.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Director Ang Lee (“Brokeback Mountain”/“Lust, Caution”/“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) keeps it light, comical and well-crafted mixing fact with fiction, but aside from a few electric moments this is mostly a slow-moving, flat and unimpressive film. It’s based on the memoirs of Elliot Tiber (who was 34 at the time) as written by Tom Monte and entitled “Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert, and a Life.” Longtime Lee collaborator James Schamus is the screenwriter. It for some reason leaves out the music of historically the most famous musical festival ever and instead uses Woodstock as background for its family drama and behind the scenes look at how messy it was getting the concert located on Max Yasgur’s (Eugene Levy) 600-acre farm (Woodstock took place on Aug. 15 through 18, 1969, on Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel, N.Y.). A bad decision to leave out the music (only heard during the credits and is slightly heard in the background during the film), as it leaves most of the film’s natural fan base staring at their closeted tie-dyed garb with disbelief and reaching for a roach.
It centers on the twentysomething geeky effeminate aspiring painter and interior designer named Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin), who lives in the Big Apple but dutifully helps his elderly Jewish parents (Imelda Staunton & Henry Goodman) run a bankrupt rundown motel in the Catskills called El Monaco. Skinflint Mom is an overbearing bellicose figure, while dad is a depressed nice guy who thinks he’s not going to make it in this world for too long. Elliot is the president of Bethel’s Chamber of Commerce, and uses his office to stage small arts festivals over the summer in this conservative area to encourage tourism to keep his folks’ White Lake motel in business. When Elliot learns that the planned Woodstock rock festival had the feet pulled out from under them by the nearby community, he calls concert organizer Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) to offer his parents’ land and the promise through his office of getting a concert permit. The supercool Lang arrives by helicopter with his entourage and before you know it a deal is made to use the nearby cow pasture of Max Yasgur’s farm.
The peaceful hippies in hordes invade the uptight farming community and practice free love and openly use drugs, and glow with good vibes for the upcoming festival of three days of peace and music. We follow Elliot’s attempts to deal with his impossible mom, with an unusual gun-packing ex-Marine transsexual security expert (Liev Schreiber) who suddenly shows up to protect Elliot’s family from shakedown racketeers, the gridlock scene of the New York Thruway closed when over a million people try to get to Woodstock, the communal Earthlight Players who sleep in the barn at the El Monaco and are a touring avant-garde theater troupe whose members use any excuse to collectively undress, the funloving nude mudslides by the hippies down one of the cow pasture’s hills and there’s a tastefully done acid trip Elliot has with a West Coast laid-back couple in a psychedelic painted VW bus. If anything, this film feels more like another version of Lee’s “Ice Storm” than the great concert film “Woodstock” in 1970. Lee, to his discredit, spends too much effort trying to say something poignant about the dysfunctional wacky family, their dreary story and of the liberation of the closeted Elliot through a cultural revolution, when the hippies and those making history promoting such a landmark concert were the far better subjects and would have made the film more relevant, passionate and telling.
REVIEWED ON 8/30/2009 GRADE: B-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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