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Wednesday, January 13, 2010
  DVD Review: Taking Woodstock

Taking Woodstock is a movie I should probably hate, or, at the very least, be bored silly by. It’s a warmly-remembered, based-on-a-true-story movie about the story behind the legendary music festival (I’m too young to get all warm and fuzzy when I think about “the ‘60s” as a time in American cultural history, and I find the majority of music from the period to be an agonizing bore), and it stars comedian and former Daily Show contributor Demetri Martin, who I really don’t like at all. But it’s delightful. It’s funny, warm, sweet, and Martin does a surprisingly good job carrying the whole thing. I blame Ang Lee.

Ang Lee, it would seem, doesn’t make bad movies. I haven’t seen all of his movies, but the ones I’ve seen (the worst is probably his 2003 version of Marvel’s Hulk, and I actually think that movie’s a lot better than people give it credit for) have all been good-to-excellent. I couldn’t have been more skeptical about Taking Woodstock going in, and I couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised coming out of it. (Well, that’s probably not true. If someone had turned into a robot or a wizard that probably would have been pretty badass.) So believe me when I say that knowledge of/interest in the ‘60s and Woodstock is not a prerequisite to enjoying this film (though I’m sure you’ll get more out of it if you are into that stuff).

Taking Woodstock is based on the autobiography of Elliot Tiber (whose name was switched to Teichberg for the movie), who helped organize the Woodstock festival as a young man helping his parents run a small (evidently decrepit) motel in upstate New York after a neighboring town pulls the plug on the hippie concert.

Maybe it’s just my own lack of interest in the mythology of Woodstock, but the fact that Lee never really shows us the concert is really charming; if you’re looking for a semi-concert film, just check out the 1970 documentary. The story if Taking Woodstock is Elliot’s story, and Lee and writer James Schamus wisely never lose sight of that fact. Also excellent are the supporting cast, which includes Eugene Levy as Max Yasgur, the man on whose property the festival would eventually take place, Emile Hirsch as a Vietnam veteran trying to get his mind sorted out after all the crazy things he saw “over there,” and Liev Schreiber as a cross-dressing ex-marine who agrees to help Elliot and his family with security. But Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman steal the show (realizing both were actually British after the fact was a trip) as Elliot’s parents. They manage to be both frustrating and lovable, as real parents are, and both characters get nice little arcs alongside Demetri Martin’s Elliot.

Speaking of Martin, I need to mention how good he is if for nothing other than I couldn’t believe he was the same guy who’s Comedy Central show, Important Things, has nearly paralyzed me with rage on more than one occasion. He’s not the second coming of De Niro or Pacino, but for a first-time actor (especially one who’s in virtually every scene in the film), he’s great. He’s funny and sweet and warm when he needs to be, and his performance gives Elliot a trace of sadness with a subtlety I wasn’t expecting.

The only part of Taking Woodstock that really didn’t work for me at all was the acid trip sequence late in the film. It’s exactly what I was afraid this movie would be; indulgent and overly nostalgic for the ‘60s, as well as way too long (it runs a couple of minutes). All things considered, it’s a pretty minor gripe, but I really would have enjoyed the movie more if it hadn’t been there. Also, the final scene in the film does an annoying “nudge-nudge/wink-wink” thing to the audience that I particularly hate in movies like this; I don’t want to spoil anything, but it plays on our understanding of events that took place after Woodstock. For a movie that’s as wonderfully subtle and understated in its commentary on the ‘60s and what they meant to American culture, it’s a weirdly heavy-handed touch.

All told, Taking Woodstock is a very good movie. It managed to hold my interest despite my (admittedly low) expectations, and its characters and story are warm and quirky without being too precious. Whether you’re a devoted fan of all things ‘60s or an outsider like myself, Taking Woodstock is a delightful little movie.



The Taking Woodstock DVD has a solid assortment of extras, led by a commentary track from Ang Lee and longtime producer/writing partner James Schamus. The pair, clearly old buddies, have a nice, playful dynamic together, and while there’s nothing particularly mind-blowing, the commentary is never boring.

There’s also a collection of deleted and extended scenes, and a nice featurette on the production of the movie. The latter doesn’t run long enough to overstay its welcome, and it covers just about everything from film’s inception (someone randomly gave Lee a copy of Tiber’s book while the director was promoting his previous film overseas) to the writing and casting and production.

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