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Taking Woodstock

Posted on December 15, 2009 at 7:00 am

This is a movie about what went on in the community near Woodstock while the concert that would forever be known by that name was happening. And a happening. In other words, this is a footnote movie. It tries to make the town a metaphor and counterpoint, a sort of counter-counter-culture, with reactions to and some participation in the sex, drugs, and rock and roll that was going on nearby, but it is impossible to watch it without wanting to ask the characters to move to one side because they are obstructing our view of Jimi Hendrix.

Those who remember the now-iconic moments from the classic documentary may enjoy seeing a few brief in-jokes (the interview with the port-a-potty guy, the nun flashing the peace sign) and some will appreciate the combination of vision and happenstance that led to the festival and its place in public consciousness as a marker for a generational shift. But director Ang Lee (“Brokeback Mountain,” “Sense and Sensibility”) falters when he tries to tie it all to his favorite theme of the internal struggle with repressed desires.

Jonathan Groff is sweetly beatific as concert organizer Michael Lang and Liev Schreiber is nicely matter-of-fact as Vilma, a pistol-packing cross-dressing vet. But the best parts of the movie are the details around the edges. The story of Elliot (a likable Demetri Martin), a Greenwich Village decorator caught up in the struggles of his parents’ failing Catskills motel is not involving or illuminating enough to hold the screen. His New York Jewish parents, despite the best efforts of Brits Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman, are the usual bickering stereotypes. Emile Hirsch is the usual crazed Vietnam vet stereotype. A troupe of college actors is there only to show Elliot’s interest in the arts and to take their clothes off. An LSD trip sequence is, as LSD trip sequences are, more boring than listening to someone else telling what happened in his dream. And it is difficult to feel any tension when some of the neighbors try to stop the concert because we all know how it turned out.

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