Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee may be the most successful, least categorizable filmmaker working today. His résumé includes an indie dramedy (Eat Drink Man Woman), a Jane Austen period romance (Sense and Sensibility), a gloomy ’70s drama (The Ice Storm), a Civil War Western (Ride With the Devil), a martial arts fantasy (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), a big-budget superhero action flick (Hulk), a gay love story (Brokeback Mountain) and a sexy thriller set in ’30s Shanghai (Lust, Caution). If you can find a common theme or a consistent style in all that, you’re a better man than I.
Adding to the impressive but confusing collection is Taking Woodstock, a lighthearted, laid-back hippie-era biopic about the kid who helped get the most famous concert in history off the ground. ... Just out of curiosity, when’s your space opera coming out, Mr. Lee?
Taking Woodstock is based (somewhat loosely) on the autobiography of Elliot Tiber. In the summer of ’69, Tiber (here renamed “Elliot Teichberg”) was stuck working at his parents’ crumbling motel in the Catskills. Played by deadpan comedian Demetri Martin (“Important Things With Demetri Martin”), Elliot is seen as a confused young go-getter with nowhere to go. It’s the Age of Aquarius in America, but it’s passing him by at highway speed. Elliot dreams of becoming an artist in upscale New York or exotic San Francisco, but family obligations keep dragging him back to podunk White Lake, N.Y., where he’s forever paying off his parents’ bank debts and keeping their dilapidated El Monaco “resort” from falling apart at the seams.
Full of grand ideas, Elliot has rented out the motel’s barn to a troupe of itinerant actors and is trying to cobble together a chamber music festival to drum up some business. As fate would have it, though, another music fest is brewing in upstate New York—a festival by the name of Woodstock. Kicked out of several venues by paranoid townspeople, the Woodstock Music and Art Fair is without a home. By chance, enterprising young Elliot has a permit to hold a music festival. It’s a match made in heaven.
Ultimately, of course, Elliot’s ambitious ways put him at odds with most of his rural neighbors. They don’t want a few thousand hippies tramping through their fields. (What they end up with is something north of half a million.) This results in a good deal of friction in about-to-be-overwhelmed White Lake.
In tracking the chaotic run-up to the landmark music festival, the film studies Woodstock’s generation-defining effect on Elliot and the people around him. The film is mainly a coming-of-age drama about Elliot’s efforts to break out from the shell he’s kept himself in thanks to his troubled (though well-meaning) parents. A summer of free love, good drugs and great music is apparently just the liberating excuse he needs to be himself.
Martin gives an understated performance—which is probably good on balance since most of the people around him are saddled with rather over-the-top stereotypes. The screenplay broad-brushes everything from Elliot’s hyper-Yiddish, ever-kvetching parents (Brits Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman) to a burned-out, flashback-haunted Vietnam vet (Emile Hirsch) to a looney, mostly naked performance artist (Dan Fogler from Balls of Fury).
There are moments, spread throughout the course of its leisurely 110 minutes, when Taking Woodstock seems just like Mr. Lee’s résumé—rather scattershot. The cast members are numerous, and most of them (Liev Schreiber’s transvestite security guard, Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s unhappy neighbor) simply drift through the background. At times even our main man Elliot fades away in the spectacle that is Woodstock. The mud, the chaos, the good vibrations, the sheer humanity of it all: Lee captures it with a nostalgic, rainbow-colored, split-screen, “I’ve seen the documentary” flavor. Lee is grooving on the spectacle, and if that occasionally distracts him from all the characters he’s assembled to actually experience it, that’s somewhat forgivable. It’s hard to argue with set pieces like a glorious motorcycle ride along a seemingly endless New York State Thruway traffic jam and an LSD-inspired look at the undulating sea of humanity surrounding Filippini Pond.
Oddly, no well-known pop-cultural figures show up on screen. (Canned Heat and Arlo Guthrie stayed at the El Monaco motel that summer, you know.) Even stranger, there is very little actual Woodstock music on display here (rights issues? cost?). Despite its missteps, Taking Woodstock does a credible job of making you feel just how much of a crazy, unstoppable happening this thing was. True, you don’t get to see Janis Joplin from the front row, but I gather few people did. Woodstock was far more about the event than the lineup—and Taking Woodstock has a great view of the sidelines.