In Taking Woodstock, director Ang Lee takes a break from the heavy dramas (Brokeback Mountain, Lust, Caution) and inhales deeply from Richard (Slacker) Linklater’s big bong of mellow moviemaking. Judging by his film’s laid-back vibe, though, Lee may have toked a little too hard.
For a story about a concert that supposedly rocked the planet, Taking Woodstock is awfully amiable and dull. Instead of honoring musical gods, the film seems to think Pat Boone was headlining.
To be fair, intensity of any kind was the farthest thing from the minds of Lee and his producing partner James Schamus, who wrote the screenplay based on Elliot Tiber’s memoir Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert and a Life. The book’s title sounds like a movie anyone would like to see. Lee’s film is something else entirely.
The story’s focus is Elliot (blandly played by comedian Demetri Martin, so funny on the Comedy Central sketch show Important Things), who has returned home to White Lake after a stint in New York City to help his Russian-immigrant parents (Henry Goodman and a hammy Imelda Staunton) keep the bank from foreclosing on their dilapilated motel.
Elliot is also the head of the town’s Chamber of Commerce, which is to thinking of ways to drum up local tourism (one board member suggests a running of the bulls, as in Pamplona). After reading a newspaper report that a nearby town has turned away the organizers of a proposed three-day “festival of peace and music,” Elliot invites them to White Lake and to use his parents’ motel as their headquarters.
The bulk of Taking Woodstock centers on the days leading up to the show. The local residents, many of them farmers, worry about hippies “rioting and raping the cattle at night.” The concert promoters, led by the long-haired businessman Michael Lang (the hugely charismatic Jonathan Groff from Broadway’s Spring Awakening), go about their preparations. Meanwhile, concertgoers begin to trickle into town. Soon, the traffic jam stretches for miles, and half a million people have invaded.
Because Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 film Woodstock already documented the concert so effectively, Lee wisely chooses not to re-create any musical numbers. The stage is only glimpsed from a distance, the music heard only via wafts carried by the breeze.
Taking Woodstock’s payoff comes in two sequences: The first is a long, sideways tracking shot in which Elliot hitches a ride with a motorcycle cop along a road crowded with feminists, war protesters, religious fanatics, Maoists and pro-drug demonstrators — a microcoosm of late-1960s America.
The other big moment comes when Elliot is pulled into a van by a young couple (Paul Dano and Kelli Garner) and drops acid. The screen fills with swirling colors and a discreet dramatization of the meaning of “free love,” the hills surrounding the concert stage undulate to the music, and the characters remark that from their vantage point, the musicians sound “like ants making thunder.”
That’s a neat, transporting moment with a genuinely groovy vibe. If only there were more such moments. Taking Woodstock is all warm, humane nostalgia but no pulse. The movie surrounds Elliot with colorful supporting characters: An alienated Vietnam veteran (Emile Hirsch), a cross-dressing ex-soldier (Liev Schreiber), a farmer (Eugene Levy) who out-hustles the slick concert organizers, a troupe of nudist performance artists.
There is also a subplot involving Elliot’s homosexuality, which the movie hints he pursued openly while living in New York but keeps hidden from his parents until a carpenter (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) working on the show makes a public move on him. Lee handles that storyline with a beautiful, delicate subtlety, and he indulges his broader sense of humor with a scene in which Elliot’s parents eat some funny brownies.
What’s missing from all these elements is the spark of vitality needed to jolt the movie to electric life. Lee and Schamus reportedly made Taking Woodstock as a rest from the heaviness of their previous few pictures. If so, mission accomplished. Watching the film feels a lot like leafing through an album of someone else’s vacation photos: Pleasant, but gets old fast.
Cast: Demetri Martin, Henry Goodman, Imelda Staunton, Jonathan Groff, Liev Schreiber, Eugene Levy, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Emile Hirsch, Paul Dano, Kelli Garner.
Director: Ang Lee.
Screenwriter: James Schamus.
Producers: James Schamus, Ang Lee, Celia Costas.
A Focus Features release. Running time: 120 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, sexual situations, drug use, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.