Review: Peace, love, not much else in ‘Taking Woodstock’
August 27, 2009
They aren’t words you hear very often: an Ang Lee comedy.
He hasn’t really made one since he directed “The Wedding Banquet” and “Eat Drink Man Woman” back-to-back in 1993 and 1994. And so, on the heels of the emotionally heavy “Brokeback Mountain” and “Lust, Caution,” Lee lightens up with “Taking Woodstock” – and the result is too lightweight.
He approaches the fabled three-day concert from an outsider’s angle, which is admirably innovative; truly, the significance and influence of Woodstock have been chronicled ad nauseam, especially lately with its 40th anniversary having just passed. But in telling the story of the people who inadvertently launched the event, Lee leaves out the substance.
Rather, he ambles amiably among these motley figures, with civic leader Elliot Teichberg (comic Demetri Martin) at the center. When Robert Altman used this structural tactic – and he did it often – it still felt cohesive, like an intricate but subtle dance. “Taking Woodstock,” by comparison, feels scattershot and incomplete.
The script from Lee’s longtime collaborator James Schamus, based on Elliot Tiber’s memoir, traces the pieces that fell into place to make Woodstock happen.
Elliot, a New York City interior designer, happens to have moved back home with his Russian immigrant parents (Henry Goodman and an over-the-top Imelda Staunton) to help them salvage their run-down Catskills motel. An arts and music festival in a neighboring town happens to have lost its permit. As president of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce, Elliot thinks it would boost the economy to play host instead – and he just happens to know a guy named Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy) who owns a 600-acre dairy farm, the perfect place for such an event.
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So Elliot reaches out to Woodstock producer Michael Lang, puts him in touch with Max, turns the motel into the concert’s headquarters and voila! History is born. It’s just that easy in a movie where there seems to be zero conflict. (Jonathan Groff stands out in his first film role as the laid-back but persuasive Lang.) And the always welcome Liev Schreiber stands out – for his sheer size, if nothing else – but also provides both laughs and gravitas in an awesomely bizarro turn as a 6-foot-3 cross-dresser and ex-Marine named Vilma, who serves as a de facto security chief.
Eventually, the hippies get wind of the show’s new location and descend on this rural area, the magnitude of which Lee depicts vividly through one long tracking shot as Elliot winds his way through traffic on the back of a police motorcycle. It’s a rare moment that feels organic and alive, as if anything could happen at any time.
There’s no real sense of the music, though, which is a bold step – then again, the performances have been so famously documented elsewhere, namely in the Oscar-winning 1970 concert film “Woodstock,” it was probably wise of Lee to avoid trying to recreate them and find his own angle into the event. But “Taking Woodstock” also leaves you feeling that something is missing. Instead, we hear some songs from far away, lilting over the hills, and at one point during an obligatory acid trip (in a van with Paul Dano and Kelli Garner) Elliot witnesses the teeming masses as waves of humanity undulating in front of the stage.
It’s not his only moment of discovery: Elliot comes out as a gay man during this time. Rather than making a big deal out of this in a tortured or cliched way, “Taking Woodstock” just sort of lets it happen, then drops it. Like Martin’s sweet but placid performance – and the film in general – it ends up being forgettable, when it could have taken a little piece of your heart.