Sunday, November 08, 2009

REVIEW: Taking Woodstock

One might think that Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock might be a behind-the-scenes look at how the legendary concert came together. It's that - and it's also a coming-of-age story, a coming-out story, and an acid-trip story. 

That unwieldiness is the movie's blessing and its curse. It's an absolute mess, but an enjoyable mess. 

Lee and writer James Schamus never quite settle on a tone. Lead Demetri Martin, whose character sets the plot in motion,  seems to have come in from a Cameron Crowe film. Imelda Staunton, as the loud Jewish mother, plays all her scenes with the volume turned up to 11. The only thing her character is missing is a rolling pin with which to bat everyone on the bean.

There's Emile Hirsch playing the disaffected Vet like a castoff from Born on the Fourth of July. Then there's Jonathan Groff, looking like a dead ringer for Michael Lang, the entrepreneur behind the concert. Euegene Levy also makes a good doppelganger for Max Yasgur, the easygoing but shrewd farmer on whose land the concert was held.

The movie's biggest drawback is that sometimes it embraces the hippie culture, and sometimes it points and laughs at them in a too-cute "weren't they  trippy" sort of way. Yet as chaotic as the movie often is, it's also fair to say it's  a memoir of a chaotic time. 

The movie captures the dizzy headiness of it all, particularly when it resorts to split-screen editing similar to the documentary about  the concert. (Funnily enough, the technique reminded me of the "panel" editing Lee and editor Tim Squyres used on Lee's underrated Hulk.) The editing also aids in  a technique Lee uses of showing footage of the Woodstock documentary from an unfamiliar angle, something Spielberg employed impressively in Munich.

The visual style holds the film together and makes it an entertaining if uneven companion piece to the documentary, which will forever be the best way to commemorate that moment in time.


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