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Review: Taking Woodstock

Ang Lee sums up the counterculture in style
By CHRIS FARAONE  |  August 27, 2009
3.0 3.0 Stars


Taking Woodstock | Directed by Ang Lee | with Demetri Martin, Eugene Levy, Henry Goodman, Imelda Staunton, and Jonathan Groff | Focus Features | 110 minutes

If there ever was a way to inject fresh interest into events that most people born after the baby boom couldn't care less about, it's to involve Eugene Levy and a shame-to-fame plot line made for reality television. We've heard enough about tie-dyed dogs and unruly pubic hair. Yes, a lot of Gen-Xers prefer classic rock to anything that's come since, but it takes more than Hendrix clips and flashbacks to penetrate attention deficits and make us care about — or, better yet, wish to revisit — Woodstock in 1969.

That's where Ang Lee comes in. On the epic festival's 40th anniversary, the Oscar-winning director (for Brokeback Mountain) does a good job with the anecdotal memories that make up the remarkable story of a hard-up artist, a cow farmer (Levy), and the other unlikely protagonists who helped throw the best party of the 20th century. There was infinite plot fodder — much of which can be found in Knock on Woodstock and Taking Woodstock, books written by the aforementioned artist/decorator, Elliot Teichberg. And Lee (with screenwriter James Schamus) whittles those multiple accounts into a big story about small people without sacrificing the integrity of either. Even the romantic side plot unfolds somewhat naturally.

Teen-faced comic Demetri Martin plays Teichberg, the closeted 34-year-old momma's boy who interests concert planners in land near his family's Bethel motel after neighboring towns (including Woodstock) deny permits. What ensues is a true adventure as unbelievable as Forrest Gump's fiction — complete with free sex, family flaws, cult heroes, and ugly bigotry. But though it might be as corny and comedic as the Robert Zemeckis film, Taking Woodstock is based on real events — at least for the most part.

It's pedantic to overthink the minutiae of what really happened in the months, weeks, and moments before more than half a million longhairs made the pilgrimage across New York State on Route 17B. Maybe Teichberg really did get stoned and tell the press that admission was free, thus attracting even more stinking hippies than were already migrating. Or maybe he didn't, as key Woodstock organizer Michael Lang (played well by newcomer Jonathan Groff) has alleged. Sure, this master narrative is flawed — particularly in the way its perpetual cheer circumvents the event's less glamorous brown-acid side. But Woodstock is, after all, intended for the descendants of hippies, and we like our happy endings foreshadowed.

Lee's contribution should fit well into the Woodstock-tribute canon. It smartly avoids overused period references. If the Grateful Dead and Creedence songs that folks now associate with rush-hour work commutes had sentimentalized the soundtrack, then this could have been an exercise in masturbation on a par with your uncle's clouded summer-of-'69 nostalgia that shifts in detail every time he reminisces.

It will be interesting to see how those who catalyzed the real-life happenings behind Woodstock — as well as those who merely claim to have been there — respond to Lee's depiction. Was the weed that green? Were the cops that nice? Was Teichberg's Russian Jewish mother (portrayed brilliantly by Imelda Staunton) really that hilarious? People agree on the basics — that sex, drugs, and music overran Bethel for three magical days — but this film explores the less frequently negotiated notion of the individual relationship with the legendary concert. And if you have faith in Lee's presentation, then Teichberg's is surely an episode worth telling the grandchildren.

  Topics: Reviews , Entertainment, Music, Jonathan Groff,  More more >
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