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Movie Review: Taking Woodstock

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The year 1969 saw something amazing happen, never duplicated and never to happen again. No, I am not talking about the first time mankind set foot on the moon, nor am I talking about a Mets World Series (that has happened one more time, although who knows when it will happen again). I am referring to the festival in Bethel, NY: the "3 Days of Love & Music" festival. Woodstock.

It was a phenomenon bringing together the best of the music scene with a million like-minded individuals celebrating freedom in a big field. I cannot imagine what it must have been like to be there, especially not having been alive at the time. I have spoken to more than a few who made the mistake of not going and if they had it all to do over again they would have been there. I know I would have made the attempt.

All of that said, director Ang Lee and screenwriter James Schamus adapted the book by Elliot Tiber and Tom Monte, taking us back to 1969 and the events leading up to the concert. It is not so much a movie about the concert itself, as it is about the people and personalities involved who made it happen. It is a sweet-natured, light -hearted film, warm and inviting, and is sure to make you smile. Watch as the eclectic collection of characters cross your screen adding to the colorful tapestry of the era. It is not really a great film, nor is it terribly deep; however, it is still an involving film that cannot help but enjoy.

Elliot Teichberg (now Elliot Tiber, played by Demetri Martin) is a young interior designer living in New York City. He moves back home with his parents, Jake (Henry Goodman) and Sonia (Imelda Staunton) in White Lake, NY, to help manage and care for their motel, the El Monaco, and also serve as the president of the chamber of commerce. The family is far behind in their mortgage payments and the bank is going to foreclose, thus forcing them out of their home. Elliot has plans to bring in more tourists and hold his annual art and music festival (which amounts to lawn chairs and records) at the motel to help make the needed mortgage money.

As the young man ponders his family's future, Jake continues to work around the motel, re-shingling the roof, whatever there is to do. Meanwhile, Sonia runs the place with an iron fist; when a customer complains there are no towels, she points to a sign that says "Towels $1."

Then fate steps in. While conversing with the avant -garde theater troupe living in the barn (featuring Dan Fogler as their leader), Elliot notices a story about a hippie concert being kicked out of Wallkill. That news gives Elliot an idea. You see, he has the permit from the chamber of commerce saying he can put on an arts and music festival. A phone call later and the motel is crawling with men in suits discussing the possibility of staging the show there, led by hippie entrepreneur Michel Lang (Jonathan Groff). Before you know it, the motel is taken over by a mass of planners and construction workers as they set up their offices and prepare the neighboring fields, owned by dairy farmer Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy).

Watching the festival come together is pretty interesting. I can honestly say I have never given any thought to what went into planning the event. Thinking about it now, the logistics must have been a nightmare. Taking Woodstock gives us a glimpse at the preparations, the construction, the promotion, the phone calls, and it is all rather crazy. And to think, they did not have he aid of the internet! Still, this is all just backdrop to the film's real story.

This is a slice-of-life type comedy.  We watch Elliot as he gets the project going, and the changes it brings around him. We are ringside as his parents lives are altered, driven by both the sudden influx of money and their own revitalization spurred by the great influx of people.The film's story remains here, behind the scenes, and distanced from the actual concert.

How true the film is to the actual events, I do not know. I tend to believe that there have been changes here and there, a slight twisting to accommodate the story that Lee wanted to portray. The final product is colorful, sweet, and very laid back. It sort of drifts around the chaos, allowing moments and characters to come through. Elliot finds himself separating from his parents, Jake finds himself able to live again, even connecting with his son in a way he likely never has before. There are plenty of other interesting characters we also discover along the way, including the entrepreneur Lang, who takes everything in stride, always confident that the right outcome will come and a plain-talking Vietnam veteran and cross-dresser played by Liev Schreiber.

Bottomline. Fun, interesting, and plays very nicely as counterpoint to the loud and violent movies that often litter the cinematic landscape. It will make you smile, introduce you to interesting characters and give you a different look at one of the most famous concerts ever, an event never to be duplicated.

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