Ken reviews: Taking Woodstock

By Ken KwekMovies - 09 October 2009 12:00 AM | Updated 5:55 PM

Ken reviews: Taking Woodstock

Taking Woodstock
Directed by Ang Lee

If a film reviewer's job is assess a movie and help readers decide whether it's worth seeing, then it's outrageously unfair to ask someone like me to review a work by Ang Lee.

Why is that?

(a) I'm a filmmaker. I do not possess the true 'objectivity' of journalist.
(b) There is no other filmmaker who rocks my world more than Ang Lee.

To me, Lee is the reigning God of Cinema. He can do anything: British period dramas, gay cowboy love stories, Chinese war epics, you name it. Every one of his movies has blown my mind.

Which means before I even enter the cinema to catch his latest film, I'm already heavily biased. How can I possibly NOT recommend this movie? Is it even remotely possible that I won't like it?

Given this baggage, my viewing of Taking Woodstock turned out to be a shockingly unhappy affair.

There I was, sitting in the fourth row, rubbing my hands in anticipation as the house lights dimmed. By the end of the screening, I was choking back tears of mortification, but more of that later.

First, the facts: Taking Woodstock depicts the birth of the legendary Woodstock Music Festival in the quiet town of Bethel, New York. Amongst its denizens in 1969 are Mr and Mrs Jake Teichberg (Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton), an elderly Jewish couple struggling to prevent their motel from being repossessed by the bank. Having banished a rebellious daughter, the two now rely solely on their son, Eliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin), to save their teetering business.

And dutiful Eliot - who in real life wrote the book that inspired this film - does. The chair of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce (total membership: Six) decides it is not only his parent's livelihood that needs rescuing, but that of the entire town.

When a major concert is cancelled in the neighbouring town of Walkhill due to venue problems, Eliot phones up the organisers and offers them Bethel. In one fell swoop, Eliot resuscitates his parents' motel, and makes rock festival history.

Taking Woodstock chronicles that history with pseudo-documentary zeal. But instead of exploring the conflicts that arise naturally out of the tumultuous 1960s, Lee and his long-time collaborator, screenwriter James Schamus, shy away from serious social and political conflicts and focus instead on the shallow manifestations of free love.

We are treated to images of casual nudity, acid hallucinations, erotic mudfights... and little else. The film's only concern is pleasure-no, not pleasure, happiness. And happiness, as we know, may be great in life, but it sucks in art.

Perhaps, having had his fill of tragedy in films such Brokeback Mountain and Lust, Caution, Lee simply needed a break. Perhaps he chose (as it were) to swing the other way.

But in abandoning a key principle of drama (Conflict is King!), Lee has leached his film of urgency and produced a work of shocking mediocrity.

Leaving the cinema, I nursed a psychological rupture - it turns out my God of Cinema was human afterall.

About Ken
Ken Kwek is a screenwriter and playwright. His film credits include the award-winning documentary, The Ballad of Vicki and Jake (2005), and The Blue Mansion, directed by Glen Goei, and Kidnapper (2010), directed by Kelvin Tong. His latest play, The Composer, will be staged at The Esplanade Theatre Studio in December this year.