Review: 'Taking Woodstock'

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

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

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

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 When a permit for what was originally billed as a small-scale neighboring music and arts festival is rescinded, Elliot helps strike a deal to keep the show alive at a 600-acre dairy farm down the road.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.

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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.

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."

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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