August 31, 2009
I'm a big fan of Ang Lee
, the Taiwan-born director of such terrific films as "The Wedding Banquet
," "Eat Drink Man Woman
," "Sense and Sensibility
," "The Ice Storm
," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
" and "Brokeback Mountain
He glides effortlessly between cultures, putting Chinese values to celluloid in one movie and reflecting America in the next. He also switches genres easily, from comedy to period pieces to drama to action.
He's had one certifiable dud in my opinion: his take on "The Hulk
." Now, I think there are two.
Erin and I were sadly disappointed when we went to see "Taking Woodstock
," Lee's take on the 1969 music festival that stands today as an iconic milestone of the rock era and baby boom generation.
It's a nostalgic look back at Woodstock, the rock festival held between Aug. 15-17, 1969 in upstate New York. It's become iconic of the era because of the 1970 hit documentary film "Woodstock" and Joni Mitchell's song of the same name (which was a #11 hit for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and a lesser hit version by Mathews Southern Comfort). The song enshrined the number of people who flocked to the three-day concert: "half a million strong," probably taken from early news reports, but the turnout was probably closer to 300,000. Still an impressive number of attendees for what came to define the rock generation's tribalist instincts.
Michael Lang riding his motorcycle around the original festival, captured in the "Woodstock" DVD.
Jonathan Groff playing Michael Lang in Ang Lee's fictionalized Woodstock weekend, along with Mamie Gummer as Tisha and Demetri Martin as Elliott Teichberg.
In Lee's misty-eyed look back at 40 years ago, all the surfaces are polished just right. In an early scene, the black-and-white TV in young Elliott Teichberg's parents' rundown motel in White Lake, a hamlet in the town of Bethel, New York, shows the July 20, 1969 Apollo moon landing, just a few weeks before the big rock show. The characters have the right hair, the right clothes, even the right hats (check out the mysterious and pointless character Tisha, and the woman who's captured in Woodstock documentary footage with the real Michael Lang). The cars, of course, are spot-on from that model year and before, right down to the hippie-decorated VW vans.
Lee even includes several signature shots from the Woodstock doc, with his fictionalized spin. As Jake rides with a motorcycle cop through the traffic jam to get to the concert site, they pass a group of nuns who are being filmed by "Woodstock" director Michael Wadleigh's crew and one nun flashes a peace sign. Later, Elliott walks past a row of porta-potties where a film crew is interviewing the guy who's cleaning them out. He also spends some time sliding in the mud, another re-creation of a classic scene from the concert. These touchstone scenes from the original movie are fun to catch in the context of Lee's movie.
What's completely missing from "Taking Woodstock" is an understanding of and appreciation for -- hell, even baldfaced nostalgia for -- the music that drew the hundreds of thousands to the festival in the first place.