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El Monaco Motel in White Lake, Bethel, New York. 1969. After struggling to keep his parents’ home and motel up and running and facing the bank foreclosing on the mortgage, Elliot Tiber (Demetri Martin) sees an opportunity when he notices a newspaper report saying that the organisers of the Woodstock Festival have just been let down by a venue and are on the lookout for somewhere new to set up their music concert.

With local farmer Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy) offering up his acres of land (after shrewd negotiation that is) and over 100,000 tickets already sold, the youth of America descend on the small town and the world that Elliot couldn’t escape from his parents to experience, comes right to his doorstep for the three day event that became a part of history.

Taking Woodstock
I’ve wanted to see Taking Woodstock for ages. From the very first trailer it looked right up my street and now I’ve seen it, I’ve gotta say I liked it... maybe even a lot. Ang Lee just manages to sell a simple story in an extraordinary situation and in amongst all of the turmoil (and hundreds of extras) presents a wonderful set of characters that evolve because of the concert... without actually ever going to the concert.

Despite never really reaching the dizzy heights of Almost Famous, Taking Woodstock feels very much a kindred spirit to Cameron Crowe’s movie. Although Elliot never actually gets to see the concert, his experiences around Woodstock capture the intention of the historical event and take the character on a journey that is the easiest thing in the world to tag along with. The enormity of the event and the simplicity of how him and his family cope (or is that just get on with it) is feel good stuff. The hippies and drama societies attitudes are ‘groovy’ and some of the characters Elliot meets along the way make for great spiritual guides in his life changing experience (especially Liev Schreiber playing transvestite veteran, Vilma, who’s packing more than a handgun under that dress and a Jack Black looking Emile Hirsch, playing a friend who transforms from a messed up Vietnam Veteran to someone who can just have fun again because of Woodstock). All the elements add up to pure feel good fun that makes me want to chuck on some far out tunes and/or go to a festival.

Taking Woodstock

Video


Initially I was shocked by how mediocre the transfer was here. Colours were muted, there was a certain degree of holoing and generally the image looked a little disappointing. I suppose to a degree the transfer's limitations made the era the movie's depicting a little more gritty and real, but honestly I’m not sure it makes that much of a difference here.

As the movie moves on, odd bits begin to pop up showing off the transfer a little more. The contrast of colours in some scenes, whether it be Elliot’s sister’s house, with its green wall, orange chair and her purple dress all looking pretty good or the obligatory acid trip scene with its fluorescent boosts or the beautifully realised ocean of fans all enjoying the same thing but even the most powerful acid trip can’t really say this transfer makes the most of what’s on offer because frankly, wide open spaces full of half naked hippies all sundrenched in natural sunlight should add up to more but sadly it misses the mark. Given these attributes, I'd be interested to see how much better the Blu-ray is.

Taking Woodstock

Audio


As we never actually go to Woodstock in the movie, this track isn’t about screeching guitars or crowd cheers, instead it’s about ambience. Initially it’s about how quiet the town is with the constant sound of insects and not much else but then the hippies arrive and the entire track becomes about creating the feeling of an event and I gotta say it does a pretty bang up job. For starters every scene has talking, laughing and whatever else sitting all around you giving a real sense of being in amongst it but what’s even more impressive is how Ang Lee captures that indescribable greatness of being at a festival.

How he achieves this is having the music from the stage floating around every scene and mainly in the rear speakers. From the moment he introduces the sound coming across the water to indicate Woodstock has really begun, to specific tracks floating around the speakers to make scenes have more resonance, it all works and has the spiritual effect that any good festival has where the silence of air has been replaced by music and reality just feels a bit groovier.

Taking Woodstock

Extras


The commentary by Ang Lee and writer James Schemus works very well, mainly because Ang Lee delivers the technical details between Schemus’s attempts at making it a little more playful and discussing the actual event. Ang Lee gives a lot of praise to newcomer Demetri Martin in his lead role and I totally agree that the role works all the better because he’s a new face.

‘Peace, Love, and Cinema' (19:24 SD) is essentially a making of with plenty of cast comments and more insight from Ang Lee all intercut with the movie being filmed.

‘No Audience Required: The Earthlight Players’ (03:48 SD) highlights the drama troupe and features Dan Fogler talking up his part.

Lastly there are three deleted scenes (06:53 SD) all of which flesh out scenes a little more.

Taking Woodstock

Overall


I think I really, really liked  Taking Woodstock and look forward to a repeat viewing to see if I have an even groovier time. It’s not extraordinary and doesn’t exactly reinvent the coming of age story, but Ang Lee leads us through the outskirts of the historical event with a steady hand and delivers the goods with ease.

The disc itself is relatively weak but in its defence, the review copy I had seemed to be more of a screener, with 'Property of Universal' popping up every half hour or so, so maybe the retail copy is a little slicker... maybe.


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