Written by: Carson McKnight, Special to CC2K
Is this the quirky, little comedy of the summer of '09?
Over the past few years there has been a quirky, independent comedy that has been released near the end of the summer and has surprised everyone with how good it is. Taking Woodstock may be that film for 2009. Much like Napoleon Dynamite and Little Miss Sunshine, Taking Woodstock is a comedy but not a laugh-a-minute affair. Instead it has a story and some heart and maybe even a message. Although honestly I’m not 100% sure what that message is. But overall the film is well done and performances are fantastic. Leading the way is Demetri Martin in his first starring role. He plays a young man who is trying to keep his parents’ small, upstate New York “resort” afloat despite it being run-down and despite a mother who is very intent on charging for anything and everything, driving guests away. He plays the part with a sensitivity and realism that I don’t usually expect from a stand-up comic, but maybe that’s because Martin should be considered an actor at this point.
Much of the rest of the cast turns in excellent performances as well, but none was more satisfying than Eugene Levy as Max Yasgur, the owner of the farm where the concert actually took place. It’s wonderful to see Levy showing his acting chops and not just making a fool of himself as he has in so many films lately.
The film tells the story of how Woodstock became Woodstock. It is a behind-the-scenes look at how the people who lived in the small town that was flooded by millions of concerts-goers reacted to the madness. Many are against the idea and want it to all go away, but Martin’s Elliott is trying to make this work to save his parents’ resort and to bring money to the small town. But through it all he also discovers that he has to be honest with himself and others about who he is and what he wants. And this may be the film’s message: Everyone has to be who they are. Liev Schreiber does a turn as a cross-dressing security guard and brings that point home to Elliott when he says “I know what I am. That makes it easier for everyone else.” So the town and the individuals must face who they are.
Taking Woodstock does really well for the first hour and a half. The last half-hour breaks down a little bit as Elliott stats to become part of the concert experience. He goes on an LSD trip which has some fantastic visuals associated with it, but also lasts a little too long and doesn’t seem to have that big of an impact on his character. Yes, after this point he seems to be making more decisions for himself and not for others, but I don’t think it’s meant to be a turning point. And if it is that feels very cheap.
Aside from the visuals in the drug trip, director Ang Lee does some interesting work with split-screen during the film. He uses it to show us different perspectives in the same space, and the effect is very pleasing to the story-telling as well as the eye. He also found a way to tell the story of Woodstock without including much, if any, of the music played there. Instead he shows us what the people who were there saw and how they felt, from the mud to the electrifying of all of the metal in the field thanks to the rain. Most of the music we hear is from Danny Elfman’s very fitting score.
Now keep in mind that all of this is from the perspective of someone who was not even alive when Woodstock took place. Perhaps those who were there will find many problems with the way the story is told, but I think Taking Woodstock does a great job of telling a coming-of-age type story with the backdrop of one of the turning-points of coming-of-age, Woodstock itself.