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taking_woodstock_ver3Taking Woodstock

Directed by Ang Lee

I’ve never been able to sit through more than a few minutes of Michael Wadleigh’s revered documentary Woodstock. Every time it’s on TV, I hope I’m going to catch some footage of Crosby Stills and Nash or Jimi Hendrix. Invariably, what I get is a (split) screenful of hippies partying on down in acres of mud. So, I was intrigued by the idea of Ang Lee making a comedy based on Elliot Tiber’s 2007 memoir about his role in this seismic late 60s cultural event. And surely it had to be more fun than the Taiwanese director’s downbeat spy yarn, Lust, Caution.

Greek-American comedian Demetri Martin plays Elliot, artist interior designer and dutiful son of Russian-Jewish émigrés Sonia and Jake Teichberg (Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman). The family owns the El Monaco, a ramshackle motel in White Lake, New York, where Elliot’s mum enforces a ruthless “no refunds” policy and takes a slovenly approach to laundering the sheets. With the family business on the verge of failure, Elliot learns that a music festival due to be held in nearby Wallkill has been cancelled. When he introduces chilled-out promoter Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) and his entourage to neighbouring farmer Max (Eugene Levy), a deal is struck that will change this leafy Catskills backwater forever.

The elements are in place for an almighty culture clash between the hippies, Elliot’s initially reluctant parents, and the irate locals who don’t appreciate these interlopers. Add to the mix the fact that Elliot is a closeted gay man with a weak father and overbearing mother, and there’s certainly potential here for conflict. Elsewhere on this site, Al Kratina writes that “good comedy is a mix of the familiar, the unexpected, and the shocking“. My problem with James Schamus’ script is that there’s very little of the second element here and none of the third – unless you count sartorial crimes like Liev Schreiber wearing a dress or Staunton in wrinkly stockings.

The jokes spring mainly from clichés about the Jewish propensity for parsimony – Elliot’s dad uses bleach instead of chlorine in the swimming pool, for example – and the always hilarious prospect of people taking their clothes off or getting stoned. A scene in which the motel’s resident theatre troupe dances round a makeshift helicopter pad is later followed by those same thespians gleefully stripping off in front of an audience of horrified locals. Apparently, exposed pubes = big laughs.

But this would matter less if Lee and Schamus had done more with the central relationship between Elliot and his folks. I haven’t read Tiber’s book, but I understand that it’s a coming-of-age story dealing with Elliot’s struggle to conceal his homosexuality from his parents, as well as his role in the nascent gay rights movement. Here, however, Elliot’s homosexuality largely takes a back seat, aside from a dalliance with a hunky builder and some heartfelt exchanges with Liev Schreiber’s sympathetic transvestite. I didn’t get much sense of either conflict or acute embarrassment, and I’m not convinced that Martin was the right choice for such a pivotal role.

If you’re a music fan, you should bear in mind that the big event here – the Woodstock festival – remains largely off-screen. (No, they didn’t invite CSN back to reprise their set.) The stage is glimpsed only briefly at the end, as Lee and cinematographer Eric Gautier (Into the Wild) evoke the mud-soaked, rubbish-strewn aftermath of the concert. There are nods to the real event, like the use of split-screen footage and the nuns offering a “peace” sign to the camera crews, but this isn’t an attempt to remake the documentary.

Taking Woodstock feels like a disappointment from the director and writer who so brilliantly and wittily captured the mores of the Watergate era in The Ice Storm. For a riveting depiction of how a major rock festival evolved out of chaos before descending into mayhem and madness, I recommend the Maysles brothers’ 1970 documentary, Gimme Shelter.

Susannah Straughan

30 October 2009

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