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WGUC Reviews

Taking Woodstock

Taking Woodstock
Focus Features
Rated R
Now Showing at: most major theaters.
Review by: Larry Thomas


There has to be an interesting story behind the legendary Woodstock music festival of 40 years ago. There were so many people involved, and many more attending, that something interesting just had to happen. Unfortunately, you won’t find it in the film Taking Woodstock.

The trailer and TV ads lead you to believe it’s a comedy. Granted, there is humor in it, and a couple of chuckles, but it’s basically two hours with a lot of dour people that you would likely drive hours out of your way to avoid.

Director Ang Lee, who won an Oscar for Brokeback Mountain, has yet to impress me as a filmmaker. He won his Oscar not for his talent, but for the ensemble work of his great cast in that film, and the emotional power of the story. And I am likely to be one of the few people in the world who didn’t like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

The cast is, for the most part, not impressive. Demitri Martin has the lead as Elliott, a young man whose family has a run-down motel in New York State. He’s frustrated about having to put all his money into this venture to keep his parents afloat, while unable to reveal to them that he is gay. Martin goes through the whole film with one expression, and an emotional range that runs the gamut from A to B… to steal a show biz phrase.

Imelda Staunton, most recently Delores Umbrage in a couple of the Harry Potter films, plays his mother. At first she just seems cranky and quirky, but is actually one of the most venal movie mothers since Mrs. Bates in Psycho. Not only is the performance irritating, but the character is completely repulsive.

Not everyone is terrible. Eugene Levy as Max Yasgur, on whose farm the concert takes place, is fine, as always, although not particularly memorable. Mamie Gummer as a young assistant to the concert promoters has tons of charm and presence. If you see the film, you’ll know her right away. She’s the one who looks like Meryl Streep…because she’s Streep’s daughter. Great acting genes notwithstanding, Gummer has a real future in acting. The very talented Liev Schreiber plays Vilma, a cross-dressing security guard, and is the one character that seems to have a real sense of humanity.

In this year of the 40th anniversary of one of the most life-changing events in the sixties generation, I have two important questions: (1) How can you make a film about Woodstock with almost NO music from the festival on the soundtrack, and (2) How can you make a film about Woodstock that is both dull and joyless? Ang Lee has found a way to do both.

I’m sure a lot of folks would not consider camping in a muddy field for three days amidst thousands to be much of a good time. But, then, many historical events were not clean, pristine, and perfect. Despite Lee’s attempt to use split screen filming to replicate the landmark Michael Wadleigh documentary filmed at the event, you’d do better to rent the new Blu-Ray DVD Special Edition of that Woodstock to get a taste of the real thing.


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