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Review: 'Taking Woodstock'

Ang Lee's dramatization portrays Woodstock as a shining moment without any larger look at what was roiling the country.

By Peter RainerFilm critic of The Christian Science Monitor / August 28, 2009

Mamie Gummer(l.) Jonathan Groff (c.) and Demetri Martin are shown in a scene from, "Taking Woodstock."

Ken Regan/ Focus Features/ AP

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It was inevitable that a dramatic feature about Woodstock would debut on the fabled festival's 40th anniversary but, coupled with all the other tributes and DVD packages and interviews and look-backs and think pieces, I'm tempted to call for a moratorium on the whole shebang. I am a proud, if somewhat jaded, member of that tie-dyed generation but there's only so much hippie nostalgia I can endure.

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The drama in question, Ang Lee's "Taking Woodstock," is a bit like the festival itself – a happy mess. It was scripted by James Schamus and based on an eponymous memoir by Elliot Tiber subtitled "A True Story of a Riot, a Concert, and a Life." Elliot had been working as an interior designer in Greenwich Village, N.Y., but moved to the Catskills to bail out his parents' ramshackle motel. When a permit for what was originally billed as a small-scale neighboring music and arts festival is rescinded, Elliot helps strike a deal to keep the show alive at a 600-acre dairy farm down the road. (The location was actually Bethel, not Woodstock, but Woodstock sounds better.) The rest is history and herstory.

As played by Demetri Martin, not a very galvanizing actor, Elliot is both the center of the action and a witness to the maelstrom. His personal odyssey during the "3 Days of Peace & Music," as the festival was billed, is intended to symbolize a generational passage. Living as a semicloseted homosexual, the strait-laced Elliot locates a companionable vibe in Woodstock. He liberates himself, along with 500,000 other shaggy attendees. Although Lee reveals little of the festivities and concerts, except from faraway, he provides a marvelous extended sequence in which Elliot, hitching a ride on a policeman's motorcycle, is ushered into the scene. The hippie (or would-be) hippie procession is like a fantasia. In only a few minutes we are treated to an inexhaustible gallery of painted faces and fads.

This is perhaps the most authentic scene in a movie that otherwise, despite its careful, almost fetishistic attention to the look and feel of the experience, seems counterfeit. It's inevitable that the hippie movement now seems as fixed in time as the Paleozoic Era, but Lee encourages his actors to behave as if they were in a roadshow production of "Hair." In the case of Imelda Staunton, who plays Elliot's horribly overbearing Russian-Jewish immigrant mother, she's such a stock caricature that the bottom drops out of the movie every time she waddles into view, and, as Elliot's father, Henry Goodman is only slightly less stock.