September 3, 2009

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Taking Woodstock (R)
The son of Catskills resort owners helps plan the most important musical event of all time, man, in Taking Woodstock, a movie that seriously harshes its own mellow by never giving us any of the actual performances from the three days of peace and music.

Which is not to say that you have to show every piece of history in a historical movie — not every World War II movie needs the battle of Midway, not every French Revolution movie needs the beheading of Marie Antoinette. But Woodstock was about music. And this movie that has a sampler of period and even festival music on its soundtrack doesn’t really give the music a serious role in the story.

Elliot (Demetri Martin) has let his interior design business and his life in New York City fall by the wayside to help out his parents (Henry Goodman, Imelda Stauton) with their crumbling resort in upstate New York. Actually, less a resort, it is more of a seedy motel with an overgrown lawn and a grungy pool. But Elliot’s determined to make something of it. He begs the bank for more time before they foreclose and gets a permit for his annual music festival, a move he hopes will bring a little business to the resort. President of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce, Elliot, who seems lacking confidence in other areas of his life, is remarkably gung-ho about finding ways to revive his and other businesses in town.

So when he hears that the neighboring town of Wallkill won’t allow a three-day concert that is expected to bring thousands of young music fans, Elliot calls up Woodstock Ventures and offers to let them hold their festival at his parents’ resort, where he already has the permit. When his land proves too small, he introduces him to a neighboring farmer, Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy), and helps to set up the festival that eventually attracted hundreds of thousands of people and, yes, a truly phenomenal lineup of musicians.

Ang Lee uses split screens reminiscent of Woodstock the movie to give us the sense of the chaos surrounding the festival. Things fall apart over and over again and we get fun little glimpses into how quickly the festival surpassed the ability of its planners to control it (one scene shows someone asking for food to be brought in, specifically rice, bananas and other foods that might decrease the need festival-goers would have for using the bathroom, as the facilities were going to be limited). Mix this with the wry but zen commentary by organizer Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) and the general moment-specific peace-love-long-hair vibe and you have a fun little document about a time and place full of sweet nostalgia.

That is, you have those things if you also have a bit of the music.

What fills the space left by the thing that the movie is about but doesn’t show is a story about Elliot’s learning to stand on his own two feet (stand up to his parents, be honest to them and himself about his sexuality) and little side stories about Elliot’s friend Billy (Emile Hirsch) a Vietnam vet having a hard time readjusting to civilian life and about Vilma (Liev Schreiber), a cross-dressing Marine who shows up to provide security and offer wisdom to Elliot and friendship to Elliot’s father. These things are nice enough but they don’t quite pull together into a cohesive story. The movie focuses in tight on Elliot at just the moment when everything in the story makes you want to focus on the concert or the historical moment of what’s happening. This urge to tell the camera “no, shoot over there” is just as aggravating as the urge to turn up the background where very faintly something like the music of Woodstock is playing.

OK, so perhaps my generational weariness at hearing about this, the best musical event in history, never to be repeated or trumped, did not have me dancing into the theater with flowers in my hair. But that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in learning something about this concert that I didn’t know. I like creation stories — I like to see how things come together and how they come to have a greater meaning than the mere sum of their parts. I like music, I like history. I just wish there had been more of any of these things here. C+

Rated R for graphic nudity, some sexual content, drug use and language. Directed by Ang Lee and written by James Schamus (Elliot Tiber and Tom Monte), Taking Woodstock is two hours and one minute long and is distributed by Focus Features.