Taking Woodstock

Taking Woodstock

DIR: Ang Lee • WRI: James Schamus • PRO: Ang Lee, James Schamus
• DOP: Eric Gatutier • ED: Tim Squyres • DES: David Gropman • CAST: Demetri Martin, Emile Hirsch, Liev Schreiber, Imelda Staunton

It’s the summer of ’69 and Elliot Tiber, a down-on-his-luck interior designer from Greenwich Village, returns home to Catskills in upstate New York where his parents’ down-market motel, the El Monaco, is on the verge of closing down. In an effort to boost the local economy and family business, Elliot gets a neighbour’s farmland to be an alternative venue for a music festival that has had its permit pulled, completely unaware of the generation-defining event it would become.

Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, penned by the director’s long-time collaborator James Schamus, and based on Elliot Tiber’s own memoirs, never intends to recreate the awesome scale of the festival and the cultural zeitgeist it encompassed – instead it focuses on the effect an influx of half a million hippies had on a small community, and on the conflict between a young man who helped bring about this event and the old-fashioned values of his parents. Unfortunately these domestic tensions are not nearly engaging enough to warrant the long stretches of the running time they occupy – and, for a film with ‘Woodstock’ in the title, the lack of musical performance and spectacle is pretty disappointing.

In terms of casting this would appear to be a strong ensemble. However, comedian Demetri Martin is rather wooden in the central role, unassuming but unrevealing as the young man attempting to come out to his parents and come into his own. Soft-spoken British thespian Imelda Staunton heaves every line of dialogue as Elliot’s mother – necessary to show the character’s oppressive roots perhaps but still verging on an overbearing Yiddish caricature rather than a believable person. Meanwhile Emile Hirsch is wasted in the stereotype of a crazed Vietnam vet, and Liev Shrieber’s curiously blasé transvestite never receives much pay-off. These characters are inconsequential people on the periphery, existing simply to make Elliot’s journey seem more weird and wonderful (the run-down resort even plays host to a truly terrible theatre troupe who workshop in the barn and are prone to impromptu nudist rituals…)

Admittedly, the production design is stellar – paying careful attention to detail in the radical signage and new age paraphernalia of the time – long panning shots of crowds of hippies making their mellow way uphill in a haze of good-time vibes provide a flavour of the kind of bohemian energy that must have been in the air. The film picks up when Elliot joins the masses on their journey towards the abstract notion of the unattainable stage – however, just as he seems to be getting there and the music grows louder, he takes a detour into Paul Dano’s parked VW with said stoner and his girlfriend. This low-key acid trip culminates in a view of the stage and spectators, the hills themselves rippling in waves of drug-fueled elation. It’s a fleeting vision, about as close to witnessing the concert as this film is willing to bring us. And perhaps that’s all we can be allowed to expect? Those dissatisfied can go to the original 1970 documentary or simply take comfort in the fact that many who went there never actually saw the stage; but ultimately this is a flat offering that lacks the ambition and deliberate intent of previous Ang Lee works of Americana such as Brokeback Mountain or The Ice Storm – less a picture of the world at the time, all the music and cataclysmic new ways of thinking, and more a sour little family drama of greed, secrecy and acceptance.

Eoghan McQuinn
(See biog here)

Rated 16 (See IFCO website for details)
Taking Woodstock is released on 13th November 2009


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