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Movie Review: Taking Woodstock

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The terrific, entertaining, lovingly detailed, and a bit disappointingly underwritten movie Taking Woodstock owes a great deal to the monumental concert movie Woodstock , 3 Days of Peace & Music.

It makes similar use of split screens to show us two, three, even four or five different goings-on at once as if the events are too many for one movie to hold. It resurrects characters like the portable toilet maintenance man who memorably wished his wayward son in Vietnam was home, enjoying the music and rolling around in the mud with his brother.

It recreates all except the concert itself. No Janis Joplin. No sad images of Jimi Hendrix playing the "Star Spangled Banner" for a few stragglers. Just a few distant chords of Country Joe and the Fish: “Whoopee! We're all gonna die.” Oh, and one memorable scene with our hero Elliot (TV’s Demetri Martin) watching the distantly lit stage pulsate through the hills during his first acid trip.

And yet, it is the specter of Gimme Shelter, the dark cousin of Woodstock that haunts everything.

That documentary opens with a scene of ultimate hubris. To get the perfect shot for an album cover, the Rolling Stones have closed down a freeway as Mick Jagger casually prances about until the shot feels just right. Later, attorney Melvin Belli devilishly holds court in his plush office brushing aside protestations of a planned free concert in San Francisco as if swatting away so many gnats and flies.

In Taking Woodstock, limos filled with “suits” carrying briefcases roll into Elliot’s farm community and start estimating how many bulldozers will be needed to turn farmland into a concert venue. And when the townsfolk protest, hippie capitalist Michael Lang (played to perfection by Jonathan Groff) is unperturbed. He simply has his girlfriend produce his “expert lawyers” – a paper sack filled with cash.

Yes, director Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain) built this house in the image of Woodstock, but go inside and you’ll find Mr. Belli sleeping in the bed.

Elliot lives with his parents. They’re a quiet Jewish family struggling to keep a family-run motel afloat. His mom is a precocious old woman obsessed with money as only someone who has none can be. A traveler checks in for the night. When he complains that his room doesn’t have any towels, she points to a sign: “Towels: $1.00.”

Elliot is president of the local chamber of commerce and he uses his meager position to secure Lang’s much needed concert permit. Elliot hopes it will attract enough people to fill their motel rooms for a week or two and give his family a little breathing room. A half million people later, their lives have been turned upside-down and his mom is overcome by greed.

That’s about it for story. Lee keeps his eyes focused on the details, perhaps too focused. But those details are exquisite. One of the finest moments is when Elliot seeks to glimpse some of the concert, but finds fighting his way through the crowds daunting until a police officer gives him a lift on his motorcycle. They slowly weave their way past a series of tableaux that play like a history of the late ‘60s.

The movie though is ultimately a sad tale of how hippie idealism and capitalist greed made poor bed-fellows. It ends with Lang riding off over the horizon on horseback – eyes sparkling with peace and dollar signs – to begin preparations for a free concert with the Rolling Stones in San Francisco.

Of course, Gimme Shelter showed us how disastrously that trip ended.

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