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Our review of Taking Woodstock (Blu-Ray), published December 15th, 2009, is also available.
A generation began in his own backyard.
"Everyone with their little perspective. Perspective shuts out the universe, it keeps the love out."
Facts of the Case
Elliot Tiber (Demetri Martin, Important Things with Demetri Martin) lives in Greenwich Village, New York. His parents (Imelda Staunton, Vera Drake and Henry Goodman, The Damned United) run a beat-up motel that is on the verge of foreclosure. Elliot is doing what he can to try to help his parents stay afloat, but things aren't looking good. One day, a story in the newspaper catches Elliot's eye. A nearby town has refused to grant a permit to a group hoping to hold a music festival. Elliot serves on the local city council, and he happens to have access to just such a permit. He gives the festival producers a call and invites them to use his neighbor's farm for the festival. Little does he know that he has just taken the first step in helping to organize one of the most important musical events of the 20th Century.
When I heard that director Ang Lee would be making a film about the Woodstock music festival, I imagined a grand, important slice of Oscar bait that would attempt to capture the full scope of a major cultural event. I imagined a soundtrack loaded with classic songs. I imagined a film that would end up on the year-end top ten lists of many critics. I certainly didn't expect a breezy, lightweight comedy, but that's exactly what Taking Woodstock is.
What is seen of the festival itself is only what was seen through the eyes of protagonist Elliot Tiber. It's perhaps best to approach the film as if it were titled The Elliot Tiber Story, with the backdrop of Woodstock thrown in as a bonus. Essentially, this is a story about a quiet, responsible young man struggling with his repressed homosexuality who somewhat unintentionally throws himself in a particularly bewildering situation. There are a whole lot of supporting characters, but not necessarily a lot of subplots. This is Elliot's story, and it's a reasonably satisfying one. Granted, it's easy to wish that the film were something other than what it is, but it's not fair to judge the film on that basis. Considering what Taking Woodstock attempts to accomplish, it works.
Lee has proven to be a master of the period drama in films such as Brokeback Mountain, Ride with the Devil, and The Ice Storm, and his gift for capturing the look and feel of a specific era is on display once again in this film. Lee conjures up the celebratory messiness of the event and the free-spirited attitude of the era, albeit in rather broad strokes. The moments of joyful freedom are balanced by moments of undoubtedly headache-inducing chaos. Woodstock may be sentimentalized to a large degree, but it certainly isn't sanitized. It's a grand mess, and Elliot can only look on in a dazed sense of bewilderment as it goes by.
As the festival is being set up, Elliot encounters a wide variety of colorful individuals that add flavor to what might have been a rather flat story. There's nothing wrong with Martin's performance; he creates a believable, understated character. However, his primary role is to quietly react to those around him as the festival proceeds, oh-so-slowly allowing himself to be pulled out of his shell. The most interesting of the individuals he encounters is undoubtedly the marvelous Vilma, a drag queen played with sweet-natured charm by the ever-reliable Liev Schrieber. His scenes sparkle with life; they're so good one can't help but wish the film had been focused on him. Emile Hirsch (Speed Racer) is also vibrant as a troubled Vietnam vet named Billy, while newcomer Jonathan Groff oozes cool as the groovy Michael Lang.
The DVD transfer is just excellent, capturing the diverse imagery of the film with clarity and depth. The overall color scheme is somewhat conflicted, veering from muddy and dreary to wildly bright and psychedelic. Either way, the film is presented very nicely on the disc. Detail is excellent throughout, blacks are rich and deep, shading is solid, and flesh tones seem warm and accurate. There are a few background shots that made me wish I were watching the Blu-ray version, but those who aren't hi-def enabled should be very pleased with this transfer. The audio is also quite solid, particularly during the later scenes in the film when the sounds of the festival can be heard in the background in a manner both forceful and subtle. Elfman's music comes through with clarity, and the dialogue is mostly solid (a few lines suffer from mild distortion). Extras include a pleasant and informative commentary with Lee and screenwriter James Schamus, an EPK-style featurette called "Peace, Love and Cinema" and a handful of deleted scenes.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are plenty of nagging flaws to be found in Taking Woodstock, chief among them the way it relies on weary '60s stereotypes. While the aforementioned major characters manage to be distinct and unique, a lot of the bit players feel like they've been pulled from an uninspired Saturday Night Live sketch. Everybody's either a perpetually high, free-love-loving wild child or a cartoonish square who wants to smack those hippies in the face. The film's general perspective of the '60s is similarly lacking in depth, somewhat naively embracing it as a flawless and beautiful era in which everyone was just trying to make the world a better place. For whatever nostalgic reason, the '60s is a decade that seems to escape cinematic criticism. Not that Taking Woodstock should have been a blistering condemnation of the era, but the child-like worship of the decade demonstrated in this film grows a bit weary.
Also, I realize that the film isn't exactly focused on the festival itself, but why isn't there more terrific music on the soundtrack? Look, I love Danny Elfman as much as the next man, but I really don't want to hear the pleasant acoustic guitar strummings of his original score during scenes where I should be hearing Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin. One of the most blatantly obvious opportunities for a flat-out awesome rock soundtrack is almost completely wasted.
Though it's far from the masterpiece I hoped it might be, Taking Woodstock is a pleasant, good-natured film that's worth seeing. It may be minor in comparison to most of Lee's work, but you could certainly do a whole lot worse.
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