Peace, Love and… Background Music?

Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock has it all: a motel commandeered by a band of hippies, an extravagant music festival, an experimental theatre troupe, and Liev Schrieber in a dress. Why, then, does it leave audiences wanting more? Hugh Lilly explains.

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Woodstock was an era-defining event; it’s the yardstick to which all future music festivals try and measure up. Forty years ago, half a million grass-smokin’, guitar-totin’, probably somewhat smelly hippies descended upon the town of Bethel, New York, and enjoyed three days of “peace, love and music” on Max Yasgur’s farm, in the process defining the mood and moral outlook of their generation. At least that’s how the story goes. A new film by Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, The Ice Storm) tells the story of a motel owner’s son and the mob that overtook his parents’ motel for a weekend in July 1969.

Taking Woodstock is not about the music, a subject already well-documented in Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 film, but looks rather at the hundreds of millions of people who flooded into upstate New York through the eyes of Elliot Tiber ( Teichberg), an aspiring interior decorator and heir to a run-down motel in Bethel, NY, whose book of the same title formed the basis for the film’s script. Teichberg, using his position as head of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce, allowed Michael Lang’s Woodstock Ventures company to take over Bethel, a town on the opposite side of the Catskill Mountains to Woodstock, after the nearby town of Wallkill killed his buzz by denying him a permit.

The film opens in a flat, anaemic mood as Lee laboriously establishes all the characters with gratuitous exposition and sets the tone. Demetri Martin, a painfully unfunny—supposedly ‘quirky’—stand-up comic, plays Elliott. His wooden appearance and staccato line delivery make the character far more anxious than is necessary; only at one point—sliding around in the mud mid-trip on the Sunday—does he look comfortable in the role. Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood) and Kelly Garner (Thumbsucker) appear momentarily as a couple who give Elliot his first acid tab; the ensuing trip inside the couple’s VW Combi van is about as clichéd as has ever been committed to film. Not only is it a bore to watch, but it obscures the one thing everyone came to see: the performances on stage.

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Music seems to function only as background noise in the film. Danny Elfman’s flaccid, wallpaper-like score that oscillates between dull acoustic tinkering and pandering psychedelic flourishes seems pointless—why not just use contemporaneous tracks from the era, the kind of songs people expect to hear in a film about the world’s biggest music festival? If Lee had no intention of ever showing the stage, why not at least compensate by having some of the music punctuate certain scenes? To be fair, there is one shot which uses a Crosby, Stills & Nash song to great effect—although the only reason it seems so enjoyable is because the audience is denied anything else, starved for any kind of musical sustinence.

The script is full of problems—clunky dialogue and the like—but its major problem is that it allows certain plotlines to simply evaporate. Why show us Liev Schrieber in full drag, announce his ambition to be a dedicated, tough-yet-benevolent ambisexual security guard—and then have him disappear? Why have Elliott kiss a man in a bar, and never again explore his blatant homosexual leanings, except for a brief moment waking up next to a man after the festival? Similarly, Emile Hirsch’s continuously stoned shell-shocked Vietnam veteran is relegated to the sidelines of the film, only to appear briefly every so often in cartoonish manner, making his portrayal just a notch above “despicable caricature”. Elliott’s mother, a neurotic Jewish woman, is given the same treatment, appearing only at opportune times to remind the audience that she’s a money-grubbing, strict matriarch who deserves respect.

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One of Taking Woodstock’s saving graces, though, is its cinematography: Lee takes 16mm footage from Wadleigh’s original film and meticulously matches it with recreations of scenes; his use of split screen—partly in homage to Wadleigh—and the few Steadicam tracking shots in the film are perfectly constructed. Emanuel Levy is superbly cast as the farmer Max Yasgur, as is Elliot’s father Jake, played by the British TV actor Henry Goodman.

Let down by a poorly-articulated story and some acting as tremendously boring as the décor in the Teichberg family’s motel, Taking Woodstock has little to offer in the way of entertainment, and if it’s music you’re after you’d be better just putting on a record or watching the original documentary. If you’re really adventurous, go out and get the new six-disc anthology Woodstock 40 Years on: Back to Yasgur’s Farm—it’d be a far more rewarding trip.

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