Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski is once again grateful that Smell-O-Vision never caught on.
Our review of Taking Woodstock, published December 15th, 2009, is also available.
A generation began in his backyard.
Helmed by high-pedigree director Ang Lee, Taking Woodstock is packed with period detail, great performers playing unusual characters, and hippies sliding around in the mud. Everyone involved tries mighty hard to evoke the aura of peace, love, and music that flowed through the Woodstock Festival. Knowing little more than your average 20-something about that event, I'm not well qualified to judge whether they nailed its spirit. But as a plain ol' story told on film, Taking Woodstock is hardly a transcendent experience. It's certainly not a full-on bad trip, but it didn't exactly light my fire.
Facts of the Case
Based on a memoir by Eliot Tiber, Taking Woodstock recounts one version of the concert's unwieldy making-of story. Entering the summer of '69, Eliot (Demetri Martin, The Rocker) finds himself living as a struggling artist also struggling to keep his parents' fleabag motel in the Catskills afloat. His enervated father Jake (Henry Goodman, The Damned United) and tyrannical mother Sonia (Imelda Staunton, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) are Russian Jewish immigrants who show him little gratitude for his help. Just when Eliot feels like he'll drown in debt and boredom, relief for both falls into his lap: an ambitious rock festival, Woodstock, is looking for a venue.
Eliot has a permit to hold an arts event, and his neighbor Max (Eugene Levy, American Pie) has lots of open land, so Eliot invites festival organizer Michael (Jonathan Groff, One Life to Live) to hold the festival in his town of White Lake, NY. Organizers and, eventually, an army of attendees overrun the family motel. When mobsters threaten a shakedown for some of the new cash, Eliot hires an ex-military transgendered woman, Vilma (Liev Schreiber, The Manchurian Candidate), for protection. Her unique energy and the aura of the concert help transform the family—or at least some of its members…
Born in Taiwan and partially educated in the U.S., Ang Lee has experienced some of the biggest highs and lows of his career making films about iconic elements of American culture. His explorations of suburban malaise in The Ice Storm and cowboy masculinity in Brokeback Mountain were wonderful, while his dreary take on the American superhero in Hulk became something of an embarrassment. Pulled back toward classic American culture once again with Taking Woodstock, Lee lands in the middle ground between these past projects, creating something mildly endearing, if a little tedious—much like the event's mellowed out concert-goers.
The film's simultaneous strength and weakness is its slavish faithfulness to the history of Woodstock. Lee and his longtime collaborator James Schamus (who wrote this screenplay) got very deeply into researching the event they were depicting and made every effort to imbue Taking Woodstock with historical realism. In the disc's special features, we see a massive wall in the production office covered with hundreds of post-it notes, each note representing a real detail from Woodstock that would end up on screen. Lee took images from photo and film documentation of the event—soggy people huddling under a piece of cardboard, nuns flashing peace signs, young people draped in an American flag—and squeezed as many as could fit into the background of the film. The crew thought hard about the ratio of hippies and local teens that would have attended, the level of traffic the motel's road would have had on each day leading up to the concert, and even the thinner-but-less-muscled build common to the period (for casting extras).
The benefit of this approach is that the film seems to drip with a sense of time and place and gives a very credible rendering of this famous gathering. But the trade-off is that Taking Woodstock is also weighed down and constrained by its realism. The pacing of the scene in which Eliot rides on a motorcycle through the crowds, for example, is markedly clunky. Pulling us out of immersion in the story, this scene feels like a labored effort to make the entirety of Woodstock available to the audience—a stilted and predictable tour. Further, this desire to reveal as much as possible rubs up uneasily against the screenplay's ironic twist that Eliot (and the audience with him) never really makes it to the main event. So Taking Woodstock tries to show as much of the side attractions around the concert as possible, but also tries to conceal as much of the concert itself as possible. It's an uneasy dual ambition, and I'm sure the latter portion has been disappointing to viewers wanting to experience (or relive) Woodstock on film.
Eliot Tiber's story does, in many ways, provide a nice framing lens for telling the story of Woodstock. It allows for lots of great characterization that puts individual, human faces on this sprawling event. The best combinations of character and performance come from Eliot's parents. As Jake, Goodman really nails this transformation from a broken-down man content to just wait for death to a person reinvigorated by the youth and excitement that suddenly floods his town. Staunton is even better, providing most of the film's funniest moments and balancing them with the bitterness of a person less willing to change than her husband. Both of these British actors undergo dramatic transformations to embody this Jewish immigrant couple of a past era. Also in the positive column, Emile Hirsch (Milk) does a great job with a small part as a disturbed Vietnam vet.
The three other main characters—Eliot, Vilma, and Michael—are all interestingly written but their embodiment by Martin, Schreiber, and Groff is less successful. Martin, playing Eliot, has roots in comedy but little acting experience, which shows in the occasional stiffness of his performance. Considering he was hired for his comedic ability, I was expecting Martin to be a little funnier, but he does alright with that aspect. The aspect of Eliot's story that he and Lee handle best is the nicely understated theme of his covert homosexuality, which runs beneath many of the events and colors them interestingly. Martin is also pretty good at playing a sad sack, perfectly whining out the great line: "I'm the only one here out of hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people who's having breakfast with his parents!" Schreiber is a talented actor, and Vilma is a great character, but the two mix about as well as oil and water. Just back from playing muscle-bound Sabretooth in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the hulking Schreiber certainly can't play a trans woman who's "passing." If the character were supposed to be ludicrously obvious in her gender/sex mismatch, the casting here would work. But when Eliot asks Vilma, "Does my dad know? You know, what you are?" I laughed out loud. Who couldn't? Nevertheless, Schreiber does the best he can and does a nice job with the elements he can control, like vocal performance and gestures. Groff (who, like Martin, is also fairly new to the acting world) has the opposite problem from Schreiber. He looks the part as Michael, 100 percent, but there's something vaguely irritating about the way he performs the role. Overselling the character's unshakeable calm, Groff seems to think the key to playing Michael is to stroll around lazily and flash an excessive number of wry, closed-mouth smiles. This character has a fair amount of nuance as written, and could have had more when performed.
Lastly, one of the more interesting thematic touches of this story is its acknowledgment that Woodstock was always about commerce alongside peace and love and music. The revivals of the Woodstock tradition in the '90s came under criticism for their commercialism, but Taking Woodstock reminds us that money was a big factor in festival's original incarnation, too.
Visually, this Blu-ray release does a great job of rendering the aesthetic styles Lee chooses. Lee changes the look and aspect ratio of his shots frequently, alternating among the full widescreen shots of the film proper, to split screens that convey the sensory overload of the festival, to shots with narrower frames and a 16mm appearance that have a documentary flavor. All of these look just right in this release. In the main widescreen shots, Lee's muted color palette with bursts of bright tones at the festival reinforces the visual sense of the late '60s. I thought the black levels tended to suffer a bit from the muted palette, but it isn't a big problem. I was a little less impressed by the audio mix, which somehow seemed to keep the dialogue too quiet and still never pump up the classic music tracks—from The Doors, The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and others—loud enough. The ambient sounds are nicely done, and we get some good directional effects from various helicopter landings. The biggest technical annoyance with the disc, as usual with Universal's Blu-ray releases, is the menu. As with many of their Blu-rays I've reviewed, the high-tech, sci-fi-esque menu template they use every time clashes horribly with the tone of this film. On top of that, Universal has added an awful advertising box that covers up one-fourth of the menu screen "informing" us about various other Universal products.
The studio offers a generous helping of the standard special features. A 19-minute making-of featurette uses split-screen or picture-in-picture formats efficiently to show us interviewees and behind-the-scenes footage at the same time. It's got quite a bit of insight about how the filmmakers decided to tackle this topic; Schamus explains: "The story of Woodstock is too big to tell as a movie…but to tell a tiny little piece of that story, from a little corner of unexpected joy that helped make this incredible event take place, that's a good end for that story." There's also a great little interview snippet with Staunton, who says of Schreiber, "It's marvelous: Liev Schreiber looking just so sweet and beautiful, as a great big girl. Heavenly." Six deleted scenes are included, running for 11 minutes total, and three of these are Blu-ray exclusives. Several of these get deeper into the conflict between Eliot and the townspeople who are hostile to the festival, and there's also a nice one between father and son, who brainstorm about how to save the motel from foreclosure (arson?). Also exclusive to the Blu-ray release is a four-minute look at The Earthlight Players, the experimental theater troupe living in the motel's barn. I would have been interested to see clips of the real troupe from Woodstock, but apparently Universal couldn't get the rights to show anything from that documentary. So this extra is mostly just the (kind of pretentious) main actor from the Taking Woodstock Earthlight Players talking. The highlight among all the extras is the unusually good commentary track with Lee and Schamus. They're relaxed and fun, providing a great range of comments from more details about the production's extensive research, to the difficulty of structuring a narrative about Woodstock, to the eccentric casting challenges that plagued the film (as Lee explains, they had to cast their many actresses with full frontal nudity scenes two months in advance, "to get the bushes back"). The two run out of things to say (and acknowledge it) about 20 minutes before the credits roll, but their track is well worth listening to until that point.
Marred by some miscasting and ambivalence about how much of the festival to show, Taking Woodstock feels like a film that was great fun to work on, but doesn't quite come together fully on screen. It's groovy enough, but falls short of far out.
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