Taking Woodstock (United States, 2009)August 25, 2009
Woodstock - the shining moment in the age of peace and free love, the incredible high that came before the bad trip of the '70s - is often remembered most for the music. This is due in no small part to Michael Wadleigh's definitive documentary. For Taking Woodstock, director Ang Lee and his longtime collaborator, screenwriter James Schamus (both working from the book by Elliot Tiber), looked at things through a differently colored lens. Yes, Woodstock was a music festival, but the reality is that only a fraction of the half-million there got close enough to experience the music. The concert element was only one aspect of a huge gathering - a time for people of like minds to come together, drop acid, have sex, and run naked through the rain and mud. This is the element of Woodstock that Lee and Schamus concentrate upon. Unfortunately, they do so in a project that is rather shapeless with a protagonist who is less than compelling.
Taking Woodstock focuses on the efforts of Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin), who is based on the real-life Elliot Tiber, to bring Woodstock to the farm of Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy). What is initially for him a business proposition to keep the rundown motel of his immigrant parents, Sonia (Imelda Staunton) and Jake (Henry Goodman), from going under, turns into a life-altering experience. The film follows events from before the decision is made to give the concert a home in Yasgur's fields to the massive clean-up that took place in the days after the event was concluded.
The least interesting part of the film relates to Elliot and his transformation. This problem has two causes: Demetri Martin is so laid-back as an actor and radiates so little screen presence that he is inevitably eclipsed by anyone else appearing in a scene with him, regardless of who the "anyone" is. Secondly, Elliot's character arc is clichéd and uninteresting, especially happening as it does in the shadow of one of the great cultural events of the 1960s. Elliot, especially as portrayed by Martin, is not capable of holding a viewer's attention. It's possible he was patterned after Ben Braddock from The Graduate, but the charisma and humanity brought to that part by Hoffman are absent here. Likewise, one could argue that there's a little of Almost Famous' protagonist to be found in Elliot, but here too there's a personality gap.
The movie hits its stride when it deals directly with the concert. The more peripheral Elliot is to the story, the better things become. Taking Woodstock expends a fair amount of screen time on the logistics and the obstacles that had to be overcome to get things ready - permits, resistance from the locals, financial negotiations, press conferences, mob involvement, and how to deal with the vast influx of hippies. When it comes to August 15-18, the event is depicted from the perspective of those who didn't get close enough to discern the music as anything more than a distant roar. I'm not sure Elliot ever hears a single song - he's too busy dropping acid and engaging in a threesome with a couple of "friends" (Paul Dano, Kelli Garner) or playing in the mud with a war-scarred buddy (Emile Hirsch).
Those expecting a soundtrack rich with '60s rock and folk music will find their glass more than half-empty. The song choices often have more to do with the mood of a particular scene than a connection with Woodstock. One example, Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home," is used effectively as Elliot is surveying the field after everyone except the cleaners have left - but although it's period accurate (having been released in 1969), neither Blind Faith nor Steve Winwood appeared at Woodstock. None of the famous "anthems" of the concert are featured in the movie, in large part because Lee did not want to compete with the documentary. Still, while one can understand his reasons, the lack of at least a sampling of the music makes Taking Woodstock feel incomplete.
The best performances are in the supporting ranks. Eugene Levy is credible in the straight role of Yasgur. Liev Schreiber stands out as the cross-dressing ex-Marine Vilma, who provides security for Elliot and his family. Hirsch, Dano, and Garner are all good, although none have more than cameo-length appearances. Staunton and Goodman are both solid, but their performances go in service of underwritten parts.
Taking Woodstock is mainly for viewers who want to understand a little bit more about the concert from a behind-the-scenes perspective. It would be a solid special feature to a deluxe edition box set of Wadleigh's film. As a stand-alone, Taking Woodstock tries to do too much with too little and, as a result, is untethered. Since the least compelling aspects of the movie are the fictionalized ones, I suspect I would have appreciated a straightforward documentary covering the same territory. Since one doesn't exist (Wadleigh's having a different focus) and Lee puts a lot of effort into making an impressive re-creation of the event, I find myself more kindly disposed toward the movie as a whole than toward Elliot's somewhat tedious narrative thread.
Taking Woodstock (United States, 2009)
Cast: Demetri Martin, Paul Dano, Mamie Gummer, Jonathan Groff, Liev Schreiber, Eugene Levy, Emile Hirsch, Henry Goodman, Imelda Staunton, Kelli Garner
Screenplay: James Schamus, based on the book by Elliot Tiber and Tom Monte
Cinematography: Eric Gautier
Music: Danny Elfman
U.S. Distributor: Focus Features