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IN SHORT: A dull sit. [Rated R for graphic nudity, some sexual content, drug use, and language. 121 minutes. ]
For those of you who don't remember the concert -- which includes most of the people who were there -- Taking Woodstock is a fictionalized addendum, if you will, to the monster documentary of many years back. The Woodstock festival, promoted as "3 days of love and music" was attended by yours truly, age 12, on Day 4, also seen at the end of the film. We were on a field trip from summer camp and passed the festival site. The counselor stopped the bus so we could see the miles and miles of garbage left behind in the mud of Yasgur's farm. "Hippies," snorted the camp counselor. "You want to be like this ...?" and off we went.
Taking Woodstock tells of a young man tasked to bring commerce to the town of Bethel in the Catskills of New York. The Catskills, for the majority of you readers, are the mountains of New York where Jewish city folk would summer (Cranky's parents called it "going to the mountains," though we never made the shlep). That was the thing to do in the 1950s. By 1969, the area is desperate for visitors.
Elliot "Teichberg" (Demetri Martin) lives in New York City and runs a small interior design biz there. After a police crackdown at his local watering spot -- a gay bar called "Stonewall" -- has made New York City uncomfortable, his friends head to San Francisco. Elliot returns to the Catskills to help run both the Bethel Chamber of Commerce and the family motel, a first rate dump -with-a-capital-"D" called the El Monaco. Parental units Jake and Sonia Teichberg (Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton) are Russian refugees, Jewish survivors the World War II hell on earth. Sonia is a thoroughly unlikable battle axe with two feet; loud and negative and seeing persecution at every turn (Jewish family. Post WWII. Go figure.) Daddy Jake has his own roofing business and is remarkably passive compared to his wife -- it must be love. A daughter seen once, early in the film, has fled the nest. The units are blissfully unaware of their son's proclivities and that's the last we'll say of it. Taking Woodstock is not a 'boy comes out to his parents' story.
Elliot main intent is to help his parents get on a financially stable footing prior to retirement. That means saving the motel from "the bank," which is threatening foreclosure. As president of the local Chamber of Commerce, Elliot thinks maybe a festival with some nice classical music in an open setting could bring maybe 5,000 or so tourists into the area. The previous summer he had, apparently, played records in the open air and that went well, so, Elliot proposes a bigger step. Maybe a string quartet or something like it, live! Tourists would fill all the motels in the area and everyone would win!
How an idea for classical music concerts turned into a rock and roll legend is a whole 'nother story. Simply, the neighboring town of Wallkill, which has already made the deal for the concert, changed its mind. Elliot makes a phone call to Woodstock Ventures and in flies -- via helicopter -- Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff), the brains behind the event. Michael has money. Lots of it. Elliot has a neighbor, dairy farmer Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy) who has lots of land. A deal is struck. Lang's crew buys out the El Monaco for the summer. The parents are saved and everybody goes home happy.
Not by a long shot. But that would be telling.
We haven't even touched on Billy's boyhood friend, the now shell shocked Vietnam vet Billy Hawkins (Emile Hirsch); the local anti-festival mob led by Billy's brother Dan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan); the performance artists rehearsing in the El Monaco's barn; the mafia shakedown artists who show up once the festival gets its permits or the cross dressing security consultant, an ex-Marine named Vilma (Liev Schreiber).
Director Ang Lee's great strength, in previous films, is to focus on characters in the midst of some kind of maelstrom. We can't think of much else that, at least on paper, fits that criteria. There are protests and hash brownies and pretty much everything but the kitchen sink splattered on screen. We wish we could say it was interesting to watch but it isn't. Taking Woodstock is an unfocussed mess. With a story about an uninteresting guy who happened to make a lucky phone call, the center isn't strong enough to contain the maelstrom.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Taking Woodstock, he would have paid . . .
Rent it. Rent the other movie, too.
More from our history books: Ten Years Later, some of the people involved in the Woodstock festival tried to stage "Woodstock 2" at an abandoned racetrack on Long Island. Yours Cranky worked with the crew that recorded that gig and, no it did not rain. It was brutally cold, in the middle of the summer and none of the artists had brought enough marijuana to "prepare." Some really big names were begging yours truly for dope which I didn't have. Woodstock -- whatever it was -- is still best viewed through the rose colored glasses of nostalgia.
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