‘Woodstock’ Masters the Mud, Misses the Music
Any film director tackling Woodstock, the epic 1969 rock music festival that changed popular culture for decades to come, must address the vast expanse of mud that defined this rain-drenched event as much as its budding rock gods musical soundtrack.
Ang Lee embraces the mud head-on in "Taking Woodstock," his lovingly crafted but uneven cinematic valentine to a festival billed as "3 days of Peace & Music." He vibrantly depicts the freewheeling young people who walked, fell and ultimately cavorted in the upstate New York mud of Woodstock, transforming what could have been a losing battle with the elements into a primordial triumph of infectious joy.
But when it comes to the music, the enormously gifted creator of such magical films as 2001's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and 2006's "Brokeback Mountain" (both Academy Award-winners) ill-advisedly attempts a major disappearing act.
The bands and solo artists who fueled Woodstock — including Santana, The Who and such soon-to-be-deceased young legends as Jim Hendrix and Janis Joplin — are nowhere to be seen in "Taking Woodstock." Neither is the stage, except in fleeting scenes with the film's main character, a young Manhattan interior designer named Elliott Tiber. More about him in a moment.
One can understand if Lee didn't want to have pale cover bands lamely attempt to replicate Woodstock's career-making performances. But with a $30 million budget, he surely could have acquired rights to some of the original performance clips from the Oscar-winning 1970 "Woodstock" film documentary. Given how expertly he captures the look and feel of the festival, in scenes small and eye-poppingly large, downplaying the music seems like a major miscalculation.
Attentive filmgoers will hear snippets of songs — a little Grateful Dead here, some Country Joe (minus The Fish) there, and a good portion of Canned Heat's "Going Up the Country," which served as the theme song in the 1970 "Woodstock" documentary. But in "Taking Woodstock" they are used as background music at an event that could not have sustained its "peace and love" ethos, or drawn an audience of 500,000, without the generation-defining rock, soul, blues and folk that helped unify so many at the time.
Instead, Lee mostly presents a behind-the-scenes story about Elliot and his elderly parents (played by Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton, whose overwrought, Jewish-mother character is so exaggerated she almost transcends parody).
Elliot is a closeted young gay man who inadvertently became a savior for the real Woodstock festival. He helped locate a last-minute site for the event, provided a crucial performance permit and offered his family's dilapidated Catskill Mountains motel as a makeshift production headquarters.
Played with way too much nonchalance by veteran comedian Demetri Martin, Elliot drifts in and out of scenes as if channeling an uber-laid-back version of Dustin Hoffman from the 1967 film "The Graduate."
Given that Lee directed "Brokeback Mountain," in which the late Heath Ledger's nuanced, Oscar-nominated character had similar repressed traits, it's reasonable to expect depth and empathy. Yet, even though Elliot is changed by the beautiful chaos around him, Martin's wooden portrayal drags the film down, and not just through the mud.
Far more intriguing are Liev Schreiber as a cross-dressing ex-Marine named Vilma and Emile Hirsch as a traumatized young Vietnam War veteran. Other fine actors, including Eugene Levy, Jonathan Groff and Mamie Gummer, shine despite their underwritten roles.
The film's comic highlights are provided by the Earthlight Players, an avant-garde theater troupe whose hyperactive updating of Chekov is 1969 pitch-perfect. Less winning is a swirling, somewhat sappy acid-trip sequence, set in what may be the largest interior of a VW van in film history.
Like much of Lee's previous works, "Taking Woodstock" is visually stunning: the bright, heavenly blue sky; the pretty young hippies and down-to-earth townspeople; the rundown motel where much of the action takes place; the slick, brown mud. But the film's story rings as off-key as the absence of the music that could have elevated it.
"Taking Woodstock." Rated: R. Running time: 2 hours. 2 stars.
To find out more about George Varga and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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