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Remaking Woodstock not such a buzz kill

By Maxwell Price

Section: Arts

September 11, 2009

HOLLYWOODSTOCK: Eliot Tiber (Demitri Martin) takes a memorable Woodstock acid trip with friends (Kelli Garner and Paul Dano) in their VW van.<br /><I>PHOTO FROM Internet Source</i>

HOLLYWOODSTOCK: Eliot Tiber (Demitri Martin) takes a memorable Woodstock acid trip with friends (Kelli Garner and Paul Dano) in their VW van.
PHOTO FROM Internet Source

Once upon a time there was a music festival called Woodstock. 500,000 people came, grooved, and partied in the mud. Many were sick, tired, hungry, and, dare I say it, annoyed at what might have fairly been deemed a disaster. For some the experience was life changing. Elliot Tiber was one of them.

“Taking Woodstock,” a film directed by Ang Lee, and starring Demitri Martin is nothing if not a feel-good tale. Based on an allegedly true story (key players like managers Michael Lang and Artie Kornfield disputed his involvement), Tiber steered the Woodstock location to the town of Bethel in order to drum up business for his parents’ motel. It’s a naïve premise befitting the festival’s hippie sentiments and subsequent sentimentality.

Demitri Martin plays Tiber with a kind of reserved yet charming innocence that made the whole concept seem less maudlin that one might imagine. Nostalgia is a tricky feeling to convey through a camera lens, but the emphasis on an individual transformation rather than a generational one dispels its worst effects.

Martin’s parents (Imelda Saunton and Henry Goodman), curmudgeonly and aggressive Russian Jewish immigrants, served as sources of many of the film’s jokes. The amusing aspect of their personalities is that neither seems particularly put-off by the free loving hippie invasion (except for a terse “no schtupping in the bushes!”), fraternizing openly with the supposed freaks.

It is by no means a flawless film, but most of the arguments against it seem to miss the point. The most frequent criticism involves the lack of music from the actual Woodstock festival. While the soundtrack prominently features Woodstock performers, the most we hear of the performances are from a distance. First, this arrangement actually approximates the experiences of many of the Woodstock festival-goers, who were forced to listen to the music beyond viewing distance, including Tiber himself. Second, does anyone really want to watch a Jimi Hendrix impersonator imitating the inimitable legend?

The other common complaint deals with the scope of the film, which only really encompasses Tiber’s family and the Woodstock folks with whom they interact. Personally, I find any film about the 60s, particularly about Woodstock, that takes the time to flesh out individual stories within a historical context rather refreshing. A larger lens would only lead to the kind of mythologizing that few can stomach post-fortieth anniversary celebrations.

Tiber probably stretches the truth for dramatic (and comedic effect), but it never feels manipulative. Much to my own surprise, I found the recreation of the Woodstock festival less interesting than the recreation of 60s Bethel, which retained enough quirkiness and rustic allure to give it pre-Woodstock character.

The most challenging subplot, involving a young Vietnam veteran with PTSD played by Emile Hirsch, was the least satisfying. The abrupt shifts in tone between the general rollicking good time of the rest of the film and the Billy sequences led to uncomfortable moments in which audience members didn’t know whether to chuckle or grimace.

Luckily, Jonathan Groff’s Michael Lang made up for any shortcomings in the other character, exuding charisma that made Martin look wooden. His otherworldly cool set him off in another category from his fellow cast members. I only hope he doesn’t get pigeon-holed in the hippie stereotype in the wake of this film and his stint in Shakespeare in the Park’s “Hair” last year.

In spite of its shortcomings, “Taking Woostock,” really is worth a viewing, even for all you straight people out there (I suppose that word means something different today than it did in 1969). A belated coming of age story, it tugs at your heartstrings harder than in has any right to do. Once you give up the idea of a Woodstock simulacrum, you’ll find yourself taken in by its sweetness. And if that doesn’t do it for you, I can only suggest “Beatles Rock Band.”

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