Woodstock, the epochal event of the peace, love, and rock & roll generation, hardly seems an ideal subject for Ang Lee, chronicler of perpetual misery. It’s about as far a departure from the existential crisis of a big green superhero, the suppressed longings of gay American cowboys or the anguish of an illicit love affair in Japanese occupied China as possible. Yet, admittedly needing a break from all the tragedy, Lee has taken it on in Taking Woodstock, a charming but too slight piffle hitting theaters a little less than two weeks after the festival’s 40th anniversary.
He and screenwriter/producer/longtime collaborator James Schamus make it their own by personalizing things. This is not the Woodstock Michael Wadleigh presented in his iconic documentary, though Lee periodically puts together exact recreations of crowd scenes from it. The music remains far off screen, a distant hum at best. Based on the autobiographical novel by Elliot Tiber, the film instead tells the story of the ways the festival irrevocably changed one man’s life forever.
As the picture opens that man, Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin), lives an unhappy closeted life in the Catskills town of Bethel, New York, where he helps his Old World parents Sonia (Imelda Staunton) and Jake (Henry Goodman) run a small motel. Elliot contacts hippie impresario Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) when he learns of his desire to find an ideal location for an outdoor music festival, and convinces him to come to Bethel with his business partners in tow. He brings them to the rolling hills of the dairy farm belonging to neighbor Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy) and soon history is put into motion.
The majority of the movie depicts the behind the scenes machinations that made Woodstock possible and facilitated its successful carrying out, despite an influx of millions of unexpected visitors. That means lots of crowd scenes of impeccably costumed extras, ample doses of mud and nudity and impressively orchestrated chaos surrounding the Teichberg’s motel. Lee clearly relishes the opportunity to crib from Wadleigh, delving into the period details with glee, and the split screens, mess of long hair, swirling colors and constant stream of ensemble activity give the film a convincing faux-documentary feel.
Unfortunately, in the sort of gamble uncharacteristic of the usually tightly controlled Lee he places the weight of the human drama squarely on Martin’s shoulders. As Elliot, the comedian (starring in a movie for the first time) basically transposes his standup persona to the big screen. At times likable, at other times droll, he in large part comes across as a big blank canvas. He’s too subdued and effete to be an effective protagonist, spending most of the movie reacting to things without much discernible feeling. The part badly needs an influx of the sort of passion and personality, some reflection of the festival’s freeing effect, that Emile Hirsch brings to his supporting role as a Vietnam veteran and Martin seems incapable of providing. When Elliot starts gaining control of his life, standing up to his domineering mother and opening up about his sexuality, the pleasure of the victory is lost amid the hubbub.
With the attempted micro focus shortchanged by a lack of interesting characters and Lee’s steadfast allegiance to the events unfolding on the Teichbergs’ front lawn, Taking Woodstock feels like little more than a series of tepid historical reenactments in search of something bigger. Even for those of us born long after the festival’s good vibes were subsumed by Watergate and the increasing quagmire of Vietnam, there’s still distinct pleasure to be had in watching such a freewheeling spectacle churn to life. It’s nice to know that Lee and Schamus have embraced the challenge of a 180 degree shift in sensibility and that the possibility exists they might do so again. Yet, ironically, when it comes to telling Elliot Teichberg’s story Taking Woodstock could have used a bit more old-fashioned Ang Lee brooding and torment and a bit less forced joy.