by Brett Parker
Taking Woodstock is both simultaneously a lighthearted play on Ang Lee’s usual themes and a film that probably would’ve been better off without Ang Lee’s direction. In telling the story of how the legendary music festival inadvertently came to be, Lee has found a refreshingly delightful fit into his ideals of repressed outsiders. The problem is that we feel the film, which is presented as a zany comedy, never reaches its full potential of unhinged hilarity. Here’s a movie about the wildest party in American history and it’s nowhere near as wild as you’d expect it to be.
The movie opens in the Catskills of upstate New York in the summer of 1969. A young interior designer named Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin) has left behind a job in New York City to help his family out with their shabby motel business called the El Monaco. His father Jake (Henry Goodman) is a quiet lay-about while his mother Sonia (Imelda Staunton) is a greedy firecracker who takes awful care of the motel. The grotesque filthiness of the motel puts their little business in financial jeopardy, causing the local bank to threaten with foreclosure. This leaves Elliot searching desperately for ways to raise serious money and save his parents’ business.
It is brought to Elliot’s attention that the neighboring town of Wallkill has denied a concert permit to Woodstock Ventures, a group that wants to organize a rock festival for the hippie crowd, a crowd the locals have a deep hatred for. Seeing this concert as salvation from financial ruin, Elliot uses his powers as the head of the local Chamber of Commerce to plant the concert in the neighboring town of White Lake on the dairy acreage of farmer Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy). While the hippie attention the concert will attract undoubtedly irritates the locals, Elliot figures his business will flourish immensely from all the traveling rock fans arriving into town.
Within days, the Woodstock organizers begin constructing a giant soundstage on Yasgur’s property and thousands of hippies begin their descent on upstate New York. The Teichbergs’ business seriously blooms from all the attention, but no one could anticipate just how large this event would turn out to be. Word gets out that the concert could in fact be free, and this causes rock fans from all over the country to make their way towards this giant festival in this small town. So many fans show up that the New York State Thruway temporarily shuts down. Pretty soon, most of upstate New York turns into a giant flower child wonderland in which countless hippies indulge in heavy sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. Beaming from his newfound financial flourishing, Elliot decides to partake in this historic event, only to unearth deep truths hidden within himself.
Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Hulk) is a director who specializes in tales of outsiders trying to function in a society that hopelessly suppresses them. So what would be a more appropriate subject matter for him than the flower children of Woodstock? Lee shows Elliot and the hippies coming under serious fire from the locals. Like most of Lee’s oppressors of change, they are staggeringly obtuse and immovable in their stance. At one point, some local bullies spray disgusting anti-Semitic remarks on the Teichbergs’ property. Yet this is one of Lee’s more hopeful and optimistic portrayals of outsider plights. The hippies are in such large numbers and high spirits that their radical sunshine overcomes whatever negative energy haunts the film. Even when Elliot comes out of the closet and realizes he’s gay, he faces little oppression for his new stance, a rare occurrence for a Lee protagonist.
Since the script supports strong themes Lee has dealt with eloquently before, you’d think he’d have masterful control over the film’s tone. Yet Lee’s direction may have skewered a zany hilarity we demand from this material. Actors that have worked with Lee in the past revealed in interviews that he is a very serious director who keeps an almost morbid atmosphere on films sets. I wonder if he created such vibes during the filming of this comedy, for that would explain the sluggish and flat nature of most of the film’s earlier gags. We keep expecting the film’s comic charms to pop with a ferocious energy, yet they drudge through the plot, as if the movie doesn’t realize how truly funny it really is. Even Martin, who is a very gifted stand-up comedian, is never really allowed to play up his comic talents the way Robin Williams could in a straight-forward role. It’s nice to see a dramatic director try their hand at comedy, but perhaps the deeply poetic Lee was wrong for this material. Perhaps a director like Ben Stiller could better serve the film’s wild spirit, for he specializes in goofballs clashing with normal society and pop culture gone berserk.
Things begin to pick up significantly when the film’s second half rolls around, in which the concert goes underway and Elliot attempts a trek towards the main stage. Woodstock was such a visually gripping event that there’s no way a filmmaker like Lee could possibly mess it up. Most of the film’s golden moments show up in this section, especially a beautiful moment where Elliot can hear the concert’s music beginning in the distance across a lake. If you like grand one-take sequences, there’s a great one here where Elliot is driven through the concert’s traffic jam on the back of a police motorcycle, observing all the various activities and expressions of the countless rock fans. And just wait till you see Elliot’s acid trip, in which he visualizes the concert’s crowd transforming into a giant ocean. Even though we question Lee’s use of split-screen techniques and his decision to deny us the musical acts, we feel he does the nature of the event true justice.
The Woodstock concert is a topic of such endless interest that it seems extremely difficult to make a bad movie on the subject. Indeed, Taking Woodstock overcomes its shortcomings to actually be a worthy film on the concert’s aura. Lee stumbles considerably, but in the end we realize that he honors his auteurist ideals satisfactorily while conveying the weight and significance of the concert’s impact. Almost all of the performances are quirky and likeable, with Liev Schreiber as a transvestite security guard and Jonathan Groff as a free-spirited concert organizer being the stand-outs. We wish there were funnier jokes and more music to relish, but in the end we’re won over by the fact that this was one party we wish we could’ve crashed!