Taking Woodstock (2009)

Director:  Ang Lee
Cast:  Demetri Martin, Henry Goodman, Edward Hibbert
Plot:  A man working at his parents' motel in the Catskills inadvertently sets in motion the generation-defining concert in the summer of 1969.

Genre:  Comedy / Drama / Music
Awards:  Nom. for Palme d'Or (Cannes).
Runtime:  110min
Rating:  R21 for graphic nudity, some sexual content, drug use and language.

Ang Lee was at Cannes a few months back with his new film Taking Woodstock.  In one of the most competitive selections in recent years, the world’s most renowned film festival featured latest films from Quentin Tarantino, Michael Haneke, Gaspar Noe, Alain Resnais, Pedro Almodovar, and Jane Campion among others.  With such a formidable line-up of some of the world’s most respected filmmakers, it would have marked another career high for Lee if he had won the Palme d'Or.

Unfortunately, Taking Woodstock was poorly-received at Cannes and was panned by critics. This is a dip in form for Lee whose previous two films, Brokeback Mountain (2005), and Lust, Caution (2007), won the Golden Lion at Venice. 

Taking Woodstock is a light-hearted take on the events and drama leading up to the famous Woodstock music festival in summer 1969, a historical and cultural keynote of the ‘baby boomers decade’, and arguably the biggest outdoor concert ever staged.

Lee’s interest lies not in the actual concert (we hear faint, almost inaudible sounds of it but never really see it), but how it all got started.  Embarking on this project seems like a gamble for Lee because it is a double-edged sword to make ‘a film about Woodstock but not about Woodstock’. 

At one end, focusing on ‘pre-Woodstock’ events would alienate viewers who would have wanted a glimpse of the concert – staged or from past footage.  Yet at the other end if Lee were to do just that, it would have been pointless because there is no way it could compete with Michael Wadleigh’s definitive documentary Woodstock (1970), the most comprehensive film about Woodstock and one of the genre’s acclaimed masterpieces.

The logistical details regarding the Woodstock preparation are not very detailed though it does enough to attract viewers’ attention, that is, if they make it an effort to be attracted. Some of these scenes are shot in split-screen (an influence from Wadleigh’s film though Lee is known to use such techniques as evident in Hulk (2003)). 

Is this creativity?  Or is it just a gimmicky tactic to distract viewers from the film’s obvious lack in emotional substance.  Taking Woodstock fails to capture the broad fascination of such a historic, monumental event.  There are times when frustration seeps in because it is difficult to feel enthusiastic about what is happening on screen.

I observe two major reasons.  One, the lead actor, Demetri Martin, gives a flat display and seems to appear distant to the viewer.  In contrast, the supporting cast gives more effective performances.  Second, Lee’s direction feels too laid-back, to the extent that the whole film feels like a lazy account of an unimportant event. 

Taking Woodstock has several positives though.  It acutely captures a sense of time and location.  In other words, it brings viewers back to that nostalgic period – visually. Unfortunately, it does not succeed in bringing us back in the most ideal state of being.

GRADE: C+ (6.5/10 or 3 stars)

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