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November 7, 2009

1

Taking Woodstock

by Franz Patrick


Taking Woodstock (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

Directed by Ang Lee (“The Ice Storm,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Brokeback Mountain”), “Taking Woodstock” was about the summer of 1969 and the flourishing counterculture that culminated in the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival. Caught among the powerful movement was a family and their debt concerning a motel that no one ever visits. Demetri Martin tried to help out his mother (Imelda Staunton) and father (Henry Goodman) with money and moral support as best he could to the point where he had to sacrifice his career as an interior designer. Stuck in the ennui of rural town, the arrival of his childhood friend (Jonathan Groff) and concert organizers gave Martin and his family a chance to finally get out of debt. The only catch was that they had to somehow take in hundreds and thousands of people (which eventually grew to about a million or so) and deal with the frustrations of the citizens of their own town, the neighboring cities and the media coverage. They also had to find a land owner (Eugene Levy) who was willing to take in all sorts of people and be able to deal with the mess afterwards.

I’ll admit right away that “Taking Woodstock” could have been so much bigger and more interesting. However, I do admire Lee’s choice of telling a story from a struggling family’s perspective, especially from a son who was more than ready to leave the nest but was chained at home because of his own guilt of abandoning his parents when they needed him most. Making that decision gave the film a much-needed heart. I was amused when I saw the family dynamics because Staunton was so intense, Goodman was so passive and Martin was inbetween. But then there were truly touching moments, especially a scene toward the end between Martin and his father when the son finally summoned the courage to do whatever it was that he wanted to do in the first place.

The storytelling was light (even for a comedy-drama) and all over the place which worked at some parts because it reflected that era. With a little bit more focus on the event at hand, stronger script and storytelling, this could have been an Oscar contender. I also would have liked to see more of Jonathan Groff. He had a certain spark about him that intrigued me. It might have been his extremely laidback nature or the way he looked into the main character’s eyes, I’m not exactly sure, but what I’m sure of is that the film would have benefited if it had fully explored characters. On the other hand, as much as I love Emile Hirsch, I felt like his character was simpy a distraction. His scenes could have been cut off from the picture and the final product would pretty much have been the same. But then Liev Schreiber as a cross-dresser and having great comedic timing really had me engaged. With this picture, one thing that didn’t work was almost always coupled with two or three things that worked.

I cannot say that “Taking Woodstock” was a disappointment because it managed to entertain and it had a fresh perspective on the monumental event. But it definitely would have won extra brownie points if it had actual footages of several artists’ performance such as Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix, or at least a restaging of some sort.

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