- Directed by Ang Lee
- Written by James Schamus
- Starring Demetri Martin, Liev Schreiver, Emile Hirsch
- Classification: 14A
At the time, 40 years ago, a mere half-million or so actually attended the concert. Since then, of course, everybody's been to Woodstock. Enshrined by the Michael Wadleigh documentary, and cemented into our cultural lore, it's become one of those inflated icons, a puffed-up symbol for all seasons and reasons, refracted through the changing sensibilities not only of baby-boomers but of every subsequent Generation X, Y and Z. The music lives on, yet so does all that attendant baggage. Thus, over the decades, Woodstock's meaning has grown as muddy as the event itself. By now, to deconstruct such a symbol, to hose off the sentimental ooze to find a core of hard truth, is no small feat.
And Taking Woodstock isn't remotely up to the task. That's a bit of a surprise, since director Ang Lee has a track record of neatly excavating the social strata, most pertinently in The Ice Storm , a film that, among its other achievements, examined the dark legacy of the sexual revolution. Here, he's working again with writer James Schamus, his long-time collaborator. But the script has a dubious source, taken from a memoir by Elliot Tiber that, based on this evidence, does nothing to scrape the rust off Woodstock's mythic cliché.
Instead, starting from the split-screen gimmickry of the opening shot, the clichés just get recycled. Elliot (Demetri Martin) is the son of squabbling Jewish immigrants who run a flea-bag motel in the sleepy town of Bethel, N.Y. Part aspiring painter, part wannabe entrepreneur, he's a young gay man half out of the closet, and the designated peacemaker in his parents' antagonistic marriage. As fate would have it, Elliot also heads the local chamber of commerce, a post that puts him in charge of issuing permits for festive gatherings. A phone call later, promoter Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) shows up with his mane of pre-Raphaelite hair and his entourage of pinstriped lawyers. Negotiations begin; history prepares to be made.
Not that we see, or hear, much of that history. The movie is too busy amassing more stereotypes, fictional and otherwise. Like Billy the wigged-out Vietnam vet (Emile Hirsch), smoking his weed and suffering his flashbacks. Or like Max Yasgur himself (Eugene Levy), the neighbouring dairy farmer with 600 acres to rent for a price. With her sturdy muscles and soft heart, there's also Vilma the cross-dressing behemoth (Liev Schreiber), who might have just stepped off the pages of The World According to Garp . And don't forget the hippie-dippy theatre troupe ensconced in a barn behind the motel, an earnest group of players dividing their time between putting on artsy airs and taking off their tie-dyed clothes.
Meanwhile, the Woodstock crew descends, installing phone lines and building the stage and salting the land with scads of cash. The townsfolk soon take a shine to the arrivistes, distrusting their manner but thoroughly enjoying that lucre. However, all of this remains peripheral to the main story, which persists in revolving around Elliot and his tepidly comic adventures - his homosexual emergence, his rapprochement with Daddy, his acid trip in a VW van, his slipping down the very mud slide so peace-and-lovingly depicted in the Wadleigh doc. But the problem screams out: Elliot (through no fault of Martin's performance) just isn't that interesting. The guy is what he seems to be, a minor figure in a major happening, and the screenplay fails to elevate his status, to give us a reason to care.
Consequently, we feel trapped inside his narrow perspective - like him, seeing that famous stage only as a white light glimpsed from a distant hill; like him, hearing that iconic music only in faint snatches echoing from afar. Yes, a limited perspective can be a useful device when wedded to a strong point of view. But the film lacks both strength and point, choosing to straddle every fence, including the one that continues to divide Woodstock: Was it the apotheosis of the Aquarian Age, or simply capitalism's group-grope with the counterculture? Or is that a false divide - were the two always inseparable?
Taking Woodstock isn't taking sides, and, ultimately, even Lee appears to lose interest, flashing none of his usual visual panache and, at the end, content to forego any considered conclusion for a hunk of lumpy irony. Still, the movie does put the lie to one cliché. Turns out hindsight isn't 20/20 - sometimes, it's just more myopia in rose-tinted glasses.