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Cannes 2009: It's Taking Woodstock, man

Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock is a movie full of surprises.

It’s a film about the most famous music festival of all time that shows not one second of concert footage. It’s a film about an event that attracted hundreds of thousands yet it manages to be intimate in scale, as much a family drama as anything else. It’s a film that demonstrates ANOTHER change of gears for chameleon filmmaker Ang Lee, the humour at times unexpectedly goofy. And – perhaps the biggest surprise of all – it’s actually pretty average, at least by Lee’s own impeccable standards.

Introducing us to the down-on-his-luck Elliot Tiber (Demetri Martin, likeable) as he attempts to help his parents (Imelda Staunton, Henry Goodman) run a dilapidated Catskills motel in 1969, it takes a good half an hour to find its feet/tone.

Then Elliott hits upon the idea of tempting the flailing Woodstock festival to his neighbour’s farm – it will drum up much-needed business for his folks’ hotel – and the movie slips into gear, effortlessly tracking the grumbles, politics and love-ins as things snowball wildly.

A decent movie that’s silkily shot and strikingly lit (it’s, like, suffuse), Taking Woodstock neatly captures a momentous cultural event, a special mindset. The vibe thrums off the screen and the ideals are welcome in these testing (read: shitty) times, but the film as a whole is frustratingly slight despite clocking in at two hours.

Sure, the lightness of touch is appropriate – no-one wants to get heavy, man – but there’s little here that rattles the soul. If anything its broad tone aligns it with Lee’s earlier work (The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman) - fine films but several rungs down the ladder from the director’s later classics (The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Brokeback Mountain, Lust, Caution).

Still, the acid trip sequence is gorgeous and funny, so good it almost flushes that godawful scene in Bobby clean out your system.