Movie Review - Taking Woodstock
directed by Ang Lee
EPIC FESTIVAL, PALTRY SCOPE
by Kevin Bowen
published September 4, 2009
now playing nationwide
The thing about doing a Woodstock movie is that you gotta go all the
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
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. 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 documentary Woodstock 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 an 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 not of a beginning; of an end.
kevinbowen @ stageandcinema.com