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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.

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The film comes across as rather dim-witted because Lee's take on Woodstock is almost entirely self-contained and un-ironic. (An exception: One of Woodstock's producers, played by Jonathan Groff, alludes to an upcoming bliss-out at Altamont featuring the Rolling Stones.) I'm not arguing that Lee should have front-loaded his film with posthippie hindsight. But it's one thing to present Woodstock as if nothing came after it, quite another to dramatize it as simply, well, "3 Days of Peace & Music."

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Even apart from its soundtrack, the Michael Wadleigh documentary "Woodstock" was such a comprehensive take on the event that Lee's movie was bound to suffer by comparison. But the documentary points up what is flagrantly wrongheaded about "Taking Woodstock," where the machinations of the producers and promoters lack any real bite or guile; the cavorters descending on the scene are without exception sweet-souled; and the acid trips, including Elliot's, are fun-house frolics. The only really bad guys are the Mafia soldiers trying to muscle in on the scene, and they are driven off as if they were country bumpkins. (Heading up security is a burly, golden-tressed ex-Marine transvestite played by Liev Schrieber in what can best be described as a career stretch.)

Lee may want to portray Woodstock as a shining moment in time, but, in doing so, he barely gives lip service to what was roiling the country. Emile Hirsch, playing a shellshocked Vietnam vet, seems like just another giddily stoned soul mate. Lee works in occasional documentary footage of the Vietnam War, or the Apollo moonwalk, but these clips seem like bulletins from Neverland.

Lee has always had an affinity for innocence and an abiding affection for outcasts, and both traits serve him well in "Taking Woodstock" – but only up to a point. Beyond that point, where sanctification meets reality, the film floats up, up, and away. It's as if he decided to photoshop the Age of Aquarius and retain only the airhead naiveté. Grade: B- (Rated R for graphic nudity, some sexual content, drug use, and language.)

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