Review: Taking Woodstock
PLOT: Based on the memoirs of Elliot Tiber, TAKING WOODSTOCK is a comedy about a young man who becomes one of the key players in bringing to light what is arguably the most important music festival in history. By "taking" Woodstock to his tiny corner of the world, he invites the wrath of the locals, yet he helps tons of people find peace, public nudity and a whole lotta drugs to make everybody feel groovy. As the concert rages on, he learns a few things about his parents and how it may be his time to take flight into the sunset.
Ang Lee has become the auteur of such powerful and unique films including LUST, CAUTION and of course, he won an Academy Award for BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. With his latest films, TAKING WOODSTOCK, he returns to his earlier days, when he made sweetly told charmers like THE WEDDING BANQUET and SENSE AND SENSIBILITY. There is an absolutely lighter tone to his latest tale of how one young man helped save his families property thanks to one of the most significant events in music history. As dark or tragic or just plain sad as it couldíve been, Mr. Lee has recreated the summer of 1969 and the experience of watching Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Simon and Garfunkel and everyone in between play for a crowd of half to fully naked young men and women, in celebration of peace for a divided nation. In fact, with so much turmoil at the time, politically and socially, it is surprising Mr. Lee has made one of his most charming and funniest films in years.
The story revolves around a young Jewish American named Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin). He has taken on the responsibility of helping his elderly parents, Sonia and Jake Teichberg (Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman) keep their Catskills ďresortĒ up and running. It is a difficult task as the bank is ready to take it away, leaving them with nothing. But Elliot convinces the loan officer to give them the summer and let them get caught up. It seems like a futile attempt to keep this business going, that is until Elliot finds that an upcoming concert called Woodstock needs a home. After getting a permit to do his usual small music festival, he is able to bring this massive concert just up the road with the help of a neighboring dairy farmer (Eugene Levy, who gives a terrific performance). Of course, if you know anything about what happened at this massive event, it was unlike anything anyone had ever seen before. It was rain, it was mud, it was drugs and it was naked bodies swaying to the music of some of the greatest and most popular musicians of that particular period.
What is strange about Taking Woodstock is that we only see the actual concert as our hero did. Just this tiny dot that is nestled in between the hills. And as this is based on a true story, Iím guessing the real Elliot (Tiber) probably never go that far either. But that is really not what this film is about. As the title suggests, this young entrepreneur is desperate to bring customers to his parents broken down El Monaco, partly for his own freedom. Yet it is more than this. It is almost a challenge to save this town and make a difference. Even when many of the locals are angered and hurt by the insanity that is sure to come from all the hippies heading down into their quite home. While this is explored slightly in the film, it is really more of a coming of age for this interior designer who is looking for more than a groovy concert. He finds his own ability to take charge and even begin a relationship with one of the construction guys setting everything up. This is Elliotís story. Whether it is his relationship with his parents, his lover or the many men and women he makes contact with, include a drug induced moment in a VW with a hippie couple, it is all about Elliot.
While I liked Demetriís performance, I felt that there were so many others that stood out. Both Imelda and Henry are delightfully fun as his mom and pop who are thrilled to see their business booming. And I guarantee youíve never seen Leiv Schreiber quite like this, as a cross-dressing, ex-Marine named Vilma. Another stand out performance is Jonathan Groff as producer Michael Lang. He Lang is beyond laid back, no matter how crazy things get, he even arrives as an almost mythical figure near the end. He is charming and charismatic, and I would not be surprised to see plenty of roles coming his way after his work here. In fact, the misfit cast is very amiable, including the off-beat theatre troupe run by Dan Fogler. This mix of familiar faces in the theatre world as well as the film world make for some interesting choices. It is too bad we are not really aware of what happens to most of them when the concert is over, and the land is covered in mud and other bits of proof that Woodstock was there.
Ang Lee handles Americana exceedingly well. He uses split screen to show us the craziness of what is about to take place (used much like it was in the documentary WOODSTOCK, directed by Michael Wadleigh). Lee simply expresses the insanity and beauty of this wild time in history. While I think he couldíve spent more time with some of the supporting characters, he certainly reveled in the almost Paganistic revelry that took place forty years ago. And while he hints at a handful of serious subjects, including anti-Semitism, he never really gets too serious. I think it could have helped, and may have made it a more emotional experience, but there is plenty of music and fun that keeps the spirit of the time alive. It is also refreshing to see such a bright and loving tribute to music that still has relevance and will continue to do so for years to come. While Taking Woodstock isnít Ang Leeís masterpiece, but it is a fun way to relive the age of peace and love. It is simply a groovy musical memory come to life.
RATING: 7/10 -- JimmyO