Monday, June 28, 2010

Taking Woodstock Takes It That Woodstock Was Boring

Taking Woodstock

Directed by Ang Lee
Running Time: 120 minutes
Originally Released: August 28, 2009 (wide release)

* ½ (out of four)

Rolling Stone magazine deemed the iconic Woodstock Art & Music Fair of 1969 one of the 50 moments that changed the history of rock and roll. Director Ang Lee’s feature film adaptation of Elliot Tiber’s memoir Taking Woodstock assures us of this much: Woodstock was crowded and muddy. Groovy? Not so much.

In Taking Woodstock, stand-up comedian Demetri Martin plays Elliot Tiber, a young man who is at least partly responsible for bringing the now legendary Woodstock Festival to Max Yasgur’s farm in upstate New York. As the youngest-ever president of Bethel’s chamber of commerce, Elliot comes to the rescue of Michael Lang (played by Jonathan Graff), a concert organizer whose planned music festival in nearby Wallkill has faced severe opposition. Providing Michael the necessary permit for holding the festival in Bethel, Elliot hopes the imminent deluge of concert-goers will breathe financial life into his parents’ floundering motel.

The bulk of Taking Woodstock focuses on Elliot’s, and less directly Michael’s, struggles with the forces that oppose the festival—from the initial reluctance of Elliot’s parents to the majority of townsfolk who fear what a stampede of 100,000 hippies will do to their small town. This is the most exciting part of the film, which is sad considering that the film culminates in a voyeuristic trek through the Woodstock Festival itself. But the problem is not merely that Taking Woodstock makes Woodstock appear less than magical, it’s that the film has little momentum even getting us to the festival. Take, for instance, the main character of Elliot. If you’ve seen Demetri Martin’s low-key brand of stand-up, you can easily imagine Elliot—he’s just Demetri Martin sans comedy. The result is a character no more complex, entertaining, or engaging than the description “a nice guy” would suggest. I can’t imagine the script for Taking Woodstock described Elliot in any richer detail than that. In fact, most of the characters are on the dull side. They lack the depth of anything beyond caricature, yet unlike caricatures, they are not animated enough to entertain us, even somewhat superficially. As further evidence, Liev Schreiber as Vilma, a crossdressing former Marine, and Emile Hirsch as Billy, a paranoid Vietnam veteran, don’t add as much humor to the film as the filmmakers suppose. Even the ever-likable Eugene Levy, as dairy farmer Yasgur, feels wasted.

Conceptually speaking, the plot for Taking Woodstock is one that should easily teem with excitement, but there is no intensity here. No building fervor, no steadily-increasing energy, which you’d think would be hard to avoid given that we, the audience, know the magnitude of what’s to come. Surprisingly, the movie actually becomes progressively more boring the further into the heart of the Woodstock Festival it descends. Walking away from this film, you’ll think Woodstock was little more than an overcrowded county fair. Prolonged, split-screen montages of hippies setting up tents and eating watermelon just aren’t that exciting, especially given the film’s lackluster soundtrack. You’d think a film centered on Woodstock would implement at least a handful of beloved rock n’ roll classics. But Taking Woodstock is shockingly devoid of music, particularly of anything noteworthy (no pun intended). If filmmaker Lee aspired to celebrate sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll by recreating Woodstock for the silver screen, he has missed by a long shot. If he wasn’t aiming to celebrate Woodstock—well, the film only becomes more pointless.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like it was sent for and couldn't come. Yes, you'd think there would be plenty of music at least.