[Screen It]

"TAKING WOODSTOCK"
(2009) (Demetri Martin, Imelda Staunton) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Dramedy: A young man decides to invite a music festival to his small town, unaware of the repercussions from it snowballing into the cultural event known as Woodstock.
PLOT:
It's 1969, and Elliot Teichberg (DEMETRI MARTIN) is a young man who works and lives in New York City, but helps his immigrant parents, Sonia (IMELDA STAUNTON) and Jake (HENRY GOODMAN), run their dilapidated El Monaco Motel in the small town of Bethel, New York. When not trying to help his friend, Billy (EMILE HIRSCH), who's returned from Vietnam a troubled young man, Elliot also serves as the president of the chamber of commerce.

There, he presides over local permit hearings, such as for Billy's brother, Dan (JEFFREY DEAN MORGAN), while also organizing summer fine arts events in the town, including the Earth Light Theater troupe and its lead actor, Devon (DAN FOGLER). In that role, Elliot comes up with an idea that he believes will not only boost the fortunes of Bethel, but also his parents and their mostly vacant motel.

After hearing that a nearby town has turned down hosting a music event that might draw thousands, Elliot decides to invite them to Bethel, and soon escorts the promoters of the Woodstock Music & Art Fair -- including Michael Lang (JONATHAN GROFF), Tisha (MAMIE GUMMER), and their money men -- over to a nearby dairy farm run by Max Yasgur (EUGENE LEVY).

After some negotiating, the venue is set, with both the musical acts and the number of expected spectators growing each day. As the likes of construction worker Paul (DARREN PETTIE), Reverend Don (RICHARD THOMAS) and former Marine turned transvestite Vilma (LIEV SCHREIBER) show up to help with the three days of peace and music, Elliot tries to keep things running as smoothly as possible, all while finally beginning to break out from under his overbearing mother.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
When it comes to public presentations and performances, few who come to watch the "show" are interested in the one or more puppeteers behind the scenes, pulling the strings, making sure everything goes without a hitch or at least as well as possible. After all, most viewers just want to be entertained and don't feel that they need to know anything about the work behind the curtain and/or the logistics of pulling off whatever they're attending.

Of course, the bigger the event, the more people are involved "backstage," and most in the audience are happily oblivious to what it takes to stage and present an epic movie, a political convention or a rock concert. Considering the latter, today's teens might view the massive Live Aid concert (from 1985) as the biggest, yet also as ancient history, but another pivotal event in rock history preceded it by sixteen years.

That, of course, was the Woodstock Music & Art Fair, more simply known as Woodstock, "an Aquarian exposition" of "3 days of peace & music" that actually took place on a large dairy farm in the nearby town of Bethel, New York. The biggest cultural event of its kind and day, it became a myth-like symbol of the counterculture revolution and featured acts both famous (The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, etc.) and those now faded away into music obscurity.

All of that was covered quite well in the Oscar winning, 1970 documentary "Woodstock" that focused on both the acts and those behind the scenes. Now, just a few months after the 40th anniversary of the concert, director Ang Lee returns to the scene, but this time focuses solely on the backstage doings in "Taking Woodstock."

Working from James Schamus' screenplay adaptation of Elliot Tiber's book, "Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert, and a Life," Lee focuses in on one character rather than the music and those performing it, although their presence is never far away.

That character is Tiber himself, known then as Elliot Teichberg, a 34-year-old man who helped his elderly parents run a dilapidated motel and turned out to be pivotal in convincing the Woodstock promoters and planners on holding their concert in Bethel after their original location was overruled by the locals. Lee's film, like various predecessors of its ilk, thus takes a historical event and simply uses it as both context and a backdrop for the protagonist's growth in this two-hour film covering a few weeks in the summer of '69.

The result is a small-scale story within a larger frame, a drama (with occasional comedic elements) that's moderately entertaining, but simply didn't blow me away in any way, shape or form. Granted, I was only five-years-old when the concert occurred and thus have no vested memories of it (alas, just like Neil Armstrong's one small step a month earlier, although I'm told I did watch that).

Even so, a film should be able to engage the viewer regardless of their personal connection to the material. Part of the problem may be with the casting of and performance by Demetri Martin as the main character. Seemingly playing a decade or so younger than his real counterpart, the comedic actor is okay in the role. Yet, considering the fictional Elliot isn't terribly charismatic and becomes more of a reactive rather than proactive person (especially later in the film once the event starts snowballing), I never found myself entranced or enticed by the character and his quest.

In short, the latter falls into the putting on a show sub-genre, with the usual simple plan getting more complicated as it progresses, what with the standard accompanying complications and bevy of related characters who show up for the ride (most notably, Jonathan Groff as the show's hippie promoter and Liev Schreiber as a hulking former marine turned transvestite, while Richard "John Boy Walton" Thomas is barely recognizable in a small role).

Lee also takes time to focus on characters who are already present before the planning, including Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman as the protagonist's immigrant parents and keepers of the rundown motel (although her performance borders on potentially offensive stereotype and caricature). Emile Hirsch is present as a disturbed Vietnam vet, and Dan Fogler plays the leader of a theater troupe that collectively gets buck naked on more than one occasion.

The latter is played more for comedy than eroticism or shock, but the Hirsch material never really amounts to anything. Similarly, the young man trying to break free from an overbearing parent bit has been done before and better and (surprisingly, considered he also helmed "Brokeback Mountain") Lee doesn't make much of the protagonist turning out to be gay in an era when that was only starting to be accepted in some circles.

Copying the aforementioned documentary (as well as other films of its era), Lee occasionally and more often than not randomly does the split screen thing (two and sometimes three images on the screen simultaneously), but that adds nothing to the effort, which also holds true for an extended drug trip the protagonist experiences. While it might contain one cool-looking visual (undulating fields of the masses of spectators and a "center of the universe" motif), it goes on way too long, as if Lee thinks this is the first time a psychedelic point of view has been shown on film.

All of that said, the film is easy enough to watch, but it never really amounts to anything, which is something of a shame considering the cultural significance of the big music event that's always just around the corner or over the horizon from this offering. "Taking Woodstock" rates as a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed August 18, 2009 / Posted August 28, 2009


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