CANNES (Hollywood Reporter) - The name Woodstock evokes so many themes in the mind from the 1960s counterculture to the explosion of youth music and sexual liberation.
Yet Ang Lee’s new film “Taking Woodstock,” screening in competition at Cannes, runs counter to any expectations that a world-class director would plumb the meaning of this transforming event. Instead Lee delivers an entertaining light comedy about a real-life person who somewhat inadvertently helped the whole iconic concert to take place.
It’s a low-wattage film about a high-wattage event. Which is somewhat disappointing, though you do get a thoughtful, playful, often amusing film about what happened backstage at one of the ‘60s’ great happenings. Focus Features plans a mid-August release to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Woodstock. It should appeal to everyone from that era, from aging hippies and love children to — perhaps — a few offspring. The film does not feel like it has significant box office potential, but Lee’s name will boost those numbers. Focus Features must be careful to emphasize, though, that this is not a music film.
James Schamus’ screenplay derives from a book by Elliot Tiber whose efforts to save his Jewish immigrant family’s dying motel in upstate New York did a lot to launch 1969’s Woodstock Music and Arts Festival. Comedy performer, writer and stand-up Demetri Martin plays Elliot and does so without any comic ticks. He’s simply a guy who unwittingly sets wheels in motion that swiftly overwhelm him but he surely does enjoy the subsequent ride.
As a very young Chamber of Commerce president, he learns that a nearby town has denied a permit for a large music concert so he uses — if not abuses — his authority to bring the concert to White Lake. (Yes, Woodstock never took place in Woodstock.) His whole purpose is to get tenants for the El Monaco Motel run by his parents (Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton). He gets a dozen to the room by the time his mother starts realizing the implications.
Of course, that’s much later after Mr. Mellow Music Producer, Michael Lang (a very “relaxed” Jonathan Groff), touches down in a helicopter, and a battalion of lawyers, event organizers, construction crews and the like invade the quiet Catskills community.
Comic figures here include a theater troupe leader (Dan Fogler) — whose actors shed their clothes at every opportunity — a neighboring farmer (Eugene Levy), who negotiates a savvy deal for his cow pasture and a cross-dressing ex-Marine (Liev Schreiber) who hires on as security (and who is the film’s only truly original character).
All too often, the film traffics in well-worn types such as Staunton’s Jewish mother, very much over the top, and Emile Hirsch’s brain-fried Vietnam vet. Also, one would never know from this movie that guerrilla theater was a vital and fascinating movement in that era or that drugs such as LSD carried any sort of danger. “Taking Woodstock” has certainly one of the more benign drug trips in film history.
The film lacks for villains. The local rednecks and a few towns folks get riled for fear that these hippies will rob them by day and rape their cows by night. Local mobsters seeking protection money get chased off by Elliot’s dad with a baseball bat.
Otherwise, this is a possibly too tranquil a movie for the cataclysmic occurrence it seeks to dramatize. The film does well in capturing the size of Woodstock with its crowds and vehicles and merrymaking. But it never quite convinces you that this is a transformative event.
Lee uses the split-screen technique, which was all the rage back then, and his crew has done a substantial job replicating the experience of Woodstock from a great distance with bands too far away to hear well. Yet somehow things never pull into distinct focus. Characters come and go too quickly, and despite Martin’s fine performance the film’s protagonist is ultimately too reactive and tangential a figure.
It’s probably an OK thing that while Elliot is gay, very little is made of this fact. On the other hand, in 1969, being gay was no matter-of-fact thing. Perhaps, as with so many other things in this under-realized movie, something should have been made of this.
The old joke goes that if you remember Woodstock, you probably weren’t there. “Taking Woodstock” creates a new one: If you do remember Woodstock, this movie is not how you remember it.
(Editing by Dean Gooodman)
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