Screenwriters: James Schamus
Starring: Demetri Martin, Dan Fogler, Henry Goodman, Jonathan Groff, Eugene Levy, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Imelda Staunton, Emile Hirsch, Liev Schreiber
Running Time: 120 mins
Taking Woodstock is a lighter, looser affair from director Ang Lee, whose last two films were the weighty dramas Brokeback Mountain and Lust, Caution. It could be Lee mellowing out or maybe just wanting to make movies that are more accessible, but this comedy feels like the esteemed director is on auto-pilot. Rigourous dissections of fractured families and tortured male protagonists are generally Lee's speciality (that bubbles below the surface in Woodstock), but with his lackadaisical approach the film drifts by in a hippie haze. The Woodstock festival was a seismic cultural event in 1969, here it feels like a bit of a damp squib.
Inspired by Elliot Tiber's memoir, the film centres on Demetri Martin's laconic interior designer as he seeks to keep his parents' creeky motel on the outskirts of New York from going out of business. When permission to hold a local music festival is denied, Elliot uses his authority as head of his town's Chamber of Commerce to grant a permit to Woodstock Ventures. Using the 600-acre dairy farm belonging to Max Yasgur (Levy), the town of Bethnal experiences a hippie invasion as more than 500,000 music fans roll up for the historic three-day rock festival.
Taking Woodstock plays out as a backstage account of the event, music is heard but bands not seen as an eccentric ensemble (including a great turn from Liev Schreiber as a transvestite head of security) orbits around the grounded Elliot. A stand-up comic in his first big movie role, Martin is blank-faced and never quite makes an emotional connection. He clashes with his parents, played close to Jewish stereotype by Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman, but never erupts. Lee keeps the fireworks in when you just want Elliot to cut loose - instead it's left to others around him to create drama. As the anchor of the story, Elliot's detachment doesn't help in conveying his personal transformation as he comes to terms with his homosexuality and finds peace with his parents. Also disappointing is the lack of insight into the dynamic between counterculture liberation and runaway capitalism as the festival becomes a cash scramble for its organisers.
Lee may well have been fighting a losing battle with this project. Michael Wadleigh's 1970 documentary Woodstock is considered by many the definitive account of the festival, bringing viewers closer to the truth of that groundbreaking event than narrative fiction could hope. There are still moments of Lee's genius on display that capture the excitement of history in the making. Elliot takes an acid trip that culminates in a beautiful perspective shot of thousands of music lovers coalescing into a psychedelic wave with the bright lights of the stage pulsing from the centre. There's also a brilliantly choreographed tracking shot of Elliot riding through a crowd of traffic on the back of a police motorcycle.
Several of Taking Woodstock's story threads feel clipped and unfinished. Characters dip in and out (some recognisable faces disappear completely) as if they're editing room victims. Emile Hirsch, who plays a shell-shocked Vietnam vet, is barely used and the mad theatre group that reside in Elliot's barn appear to be of some importance early on only to retreat into the background. This is by no means a terrible film, but from a filmmaker as exceptional as Ang Lee it's a rare disappointment.
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