The strange, improbable story of Woodstock has been documented exhaustively in print and on the screen, making it somewhat curious that Ang Lee has chosen to make it the subject of his first bona fide comedy since 1994’s Eat Drink Man Woman. Yet that’s just what we get in Taking Woodstock, a lighthearted look back at three days of peace and music whose more magical qualities fail to materialize here.
Lee has stated in recent interviews that he didn’t set out to make a concert film, and on that count he succeeds: There’s no footage of the legendary performances by Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, among others, though we occasionally hear them on the soundtrack. Instead, Taking Woodstock focuses on the action behind the scenes, as witnessed by an endearingly naïve interior designer named Elliot Teichberg.
Elliot (Demetri Martin, of Comedy Central’s Important Things with Demetri Martin) has returned to his upstate New York home to help his parents, crotchety Holocaust survivors from Russia played by Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman, save their rundown motel from foreclosure. His bright idea? To lure the organizers of a proposed music festival to Bethel, NY – the actual concert site, roughly 40 miles southwest of Woodstock – and drum up some much-needed commerce.
Based on Teichberg’s memoir, Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert and a Life (written under the name Elliot Tiber), the movie takes the modestly novel approach of tracing the timeline leading up to the festival, from negotiations with bare-chested festival mastermind Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) to the wooing of Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy), who agrees to host the event on his 600-acre dairy farm – so long as everyone involved cleans up afterward.
Things begin to spiral out of control as half a million 24-hour party people arrive on the scene, including Emile Hirsch as a traumatized Vietnam veteran and Liev Schreiber as a hulking, cross-dressing security guard. (Schreiber plays it straight, no pun intended, and his performance is one of the few that leaves an impression.) Not that Elliot seems to mind; he’s busy shedding his inhibitions, mingling with hippies, experimenting with LSD and achieving some degree of chemically enhanced enlightenment.
While some have praised Lee for honoring the narrative perspective of Teichberg’s memoir and measuring the festival (now celebrating its 40th anniversary) in terms of its impact on one young adult and the small community he represents, one of the movie’s biggest problems is Elliot himself – he’s affable enough, just not very interesting. Unlike the young Cameron Crowe-inspired journalist played by Patrick Fugit in Almost Famous, Elliot is passive, reticent and easy to overlook.
Lee has a flair for bringing out the poetry in his subjects, whether he’s depicting characters whose lives are haunted by forbidden passions (Lust/Caution, Brokeback Mountain) or those doomed to bittersweet solitude by circumstance (Hulk). Yet he and longtime screenwriter James Schamus don’t seem to have a firm grasp on Woodstock. Why was it important? What did it mean? Taking Woodstock is amiable, nostalgic and sporadically funny, but in its attempts to put the festival in some sort of historical perspective, it seems superficial and slight.