Friday, August 28, 2009

Taking Woodstock

Taking Woodstock [R]
Grade: D
Cast: Demetri Martin, Imelda Staunton, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jonathan Groff, Eugene Levy, Liev Schreiber
Director: Ang Lee

The thing about doing a Woodstock movie is that you gotta go all the way.

It might be the wise choice not to try and re-create the spectacle – half a million hippie youths “mellowed out,” playing in the mud, and listening to three hazy days of music. But it’s also a bit of a cowardly choice. You’re there. You’re not going to be there again. You gotta go for it.

Like the million people who went to Woodstock but never quite made it, Ang Lee’s (disastrously titled) Taking Woodstock gets stuck in the million-man traffic jam. Instead of expanding to the size of the spectacle, the film curiously gets smaller. And smaller. Until it’s too small for the scale of the event.

James Schamus’ screenplay adapts the biography of Elliot Tiber, the shy son of Russian Jewish émigrés running a fleabag motel in the Catskills who accidentally becomes an organizer of the most famous concert of all time. In 1969 the neighboring community Walkill had run the hippie pageant out of town. Tiber and his neighbor Max Yasgur offered up Max’s farm as a replacement. The rest is history.

With some imagination, the buildup to an epic event can make fascinating storytelling in its own right. Certainly that was true with last year’s Man on Wire. Taking Woodstock seems to get this right at times, detailing how happy accidents led a colossal social happening to a fallow alfalfa field in rural New York. In its best moments, the film engages in the sort of strange cross-cultural currents between hippies and the squares that epitomized the sixties. Then the concert fades, the film shrinks. We watch Tiber coming to terms with his family and his homosexuality. It’s tenderly told, but ….. who cares? What’s going on over the hill?

Ultimately, this is the ballad of Ang Lee – a willingness to attack big subjects, a pitch-perfect eye and ear for the surfaces of an era, and yet an uncanny way of finding too conventional stories that don’t live up to the scope. His world is that of received literary wisdom rather than original thought. He’s a master at making films that impress and underwhelm simultaneously, and Taking Woodstock is a poster child.

Even the hardest Republican should be able to appreciate how a freewheeling. Free-love youth festival, the product of the excesses of a free society, stands as an antidote to Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies, 35 years apart and a world away. Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock documentary might be overlong, but in its split-screen perspectives, languid pace, and freedom-loving values, it’s also a screw-you reply to Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will.

Ultimately the sixties were a idealistic reaction to a world that had been tearing itself apart for half a century. The sixties would die at Altamont. They would be buried in Munich. Woodstock was always the honeymoon, but one that was not a beginning but an end.

No comments: