Review: Taking Woodstock

taking woodstock one sheetYou’d have to be hiding under a rock not to know that August was the fortieth anniversary of a little outdoor concert in upstate New York called Woodstock. On August 15,16, and 17 of 1969, an incredible lineup of over thirty folk and rock groups ranging from Ravi Shankar to Arlo Guthrie, The Grateful Dead to Joe Cocker, jefferson Airplane, The Who, Janis Joplin, Santana, and, of course, Jimi Hendrix entertained a huge crowd.

With 500,000 in attendance, Woodstock took place in the small (population 4500) Catskills town of Bethel, about 100 miles north of Manhattan. The movie Taking Woodstock is based on the book by the same name written by Bethel motel owner Elliot Teichberg.
I missed the concert, even though we lived in New York at the time, because I was in elementary school and, well, my parents were definitely not heading to the Catskills for a weekend of free love, drugs, and hippies. Nonetheless, I’ve always been interested in Woodstock and how it all came to be.
Director Ang Lee does a good enough job with the historical retelling of Elliot’s (Demetri Martin) story of Woodstock, but fails to create engaging characters, instead leaving us with a motley collection of one-dimensional caricatures, like Billy (Emile Hirsch) the scroungy misunderstood Vietnam war vet and Elliot’s stereotypically Jewish parents, the angry, critical and secretive Sonia (Imelda Staunton) and the long-suffering Jake (Henry Goodman).
If you were at Woodstock or even love the music, you’ll be disappointed how little of the concert shows up in the film too: It’s exactly mirrored by the presence of the momentous Apollo 11 landing in the film, which we see on TV, all but the most pivotal moment of Armstrong taking that one giant leap for mankind.
For a film based on an amazing, world-changing concert that represents the zenith of the 60’s free love hippie culture, Lee has crafted the worst possible insult: a movie that just isn’t particularly funny, insightful or engaging.

It’s difficult to create a film firmly rooted in contemporary history because either the director takes liberties with the story (think Oliver Stone) or the story itself becomes something more akin to a documentary without the sweeping narrative arc of good drama. It’s the latter that afflicts Taking Woodstock, because while it’s definitely interesting to learn more about the back story of the great Woodstock concert, El Monaco motel owner Elliot Teichberg just wasn’t that interesting a young man.

There were attempts to create drama in the movie and to perhaps dip a toe into the waters of a coming of age film, but both fell flat. For example, at one point Elliot visits his sister in Manhattan and they commiserate about their parents and the failing motel, but she then never shows up again, even as the family motel becomes the central focus of Woodstock planning. Elliot also gets mad at his mother in one scene, but in a very tentative manner, and then their relationship is never resolved. In a third element, the local toughs paint anti-Semitic slogans on the wall of the hotel,  but then are never seen again.
The film starts with Elliot as the president of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce, even though he lives in New York City and is far younger than any of the other business owners in the Chamber. The family motel is $5,000 in arrears and they’re begging the bank to let them have just a few more months to pay off their debt. With few other options on the horizon, Elliot reads about the Woodstock concert losing its permit to perform in Wallkill, New York and contacts Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff), offering him their acreage for the concert.
Lang and his entourage arrive by helicopter (and car, the cars being just a few minutes slower than the helicopter, confusingly enough) and quickly realize that the El Monaco fields won’t work. Elliot introduces them to Max Hasgur (Eugene Levy) who has large dairy fields that are suitable for an outdoor concert. The deal is struck and concert people start invading the town, which isn’t too thrilled about the experience.

taking woodstock publicity still

Elliot has an obligatory LSD trip with two beautiful strangers

Other caricatures appear in the film, notably Vilma (Liev Schreiber) as the ex-Marine crossdresser who shows up out of nowhere and offers to manage security at the motel. Elliot accepts and Vilma then befriends Jake. The juxtaposition between the tough Marine security cop and the crossdresser could have produced some interesting dialog, but it never materialized.
There was lots of split-screen added to the film, and a lot of digital compositing, adding the actors to stock footage from the Woodstock concert (think Forrest Gump), much of which was pretty obvious but all of which gave us a much needed actual view of the concert venue and, once or twice, the concert itself.
Organizations like the Students for a Democratic Society appear in the film too, but unlike the  actual SDS and its radical 60s activism, in Taking Woodstock the group is portrayed as a completely innocuous bunch handing out bumperstickers and complaining about the US presence in Vietnam.
Taking Woodstock is not a bad film, even given my comments, and there are some amusing moments, but ultimately the lack of any actual dramatic storyline and the preponderance of stereotypes and caricatures doom it to being boring when the concert most definitely wasn’t. I’d wait until it was on DVD if you watch it at all, or perhaps consider the 1970’s documentary Woodstock instead.

3 comments on “Review: Taking Woodstock

  1. I saw this movie here in Woodstock with Ang Lee, James Shamus and Michael Lang in the audience. It’s a small movie from the perspective of Elliot Tiber, a minor player in the overall saga of Woodstock. Definitely worth seeing.

    Peace, love, music,

  2. Thanks for your question and comment, Christian. Yeah, the Jewish characters were stereotypical, but then again it was the Catskills in the 60s so I do think that Russian Jews were probably quite likely what we today would consider stereotypes. There were certainly elements of their behavior that reminded me (vaguely) of my own Jewish parents… but don’t tell them that, okay? 🙂

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