Runtime: 1 hr 50 min
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Ang Lee
Starring: Demetri Martin, Imelda Staunton, Henry Goodman, Liev Schreiber, Jonathan Groff, Emile Hirsch, Paul Dano
Review by: MiamiMovieCritic
Added: 7 years ago
I was a fan of Elliot Tiber’s autobiographical book on which Taking Woodstock is based, and of course I share the same fascination with the fabled ’69 concert as any other would-be hippie. So, despite mixed reviews and the virtual shellacking the film received at Cannes, I approached Ang Lee’s new movie with no small amount of anticipation.
I’m happy to report that the results are mostly splendid! The good vibes don’t extend to the film’s final scenes, which turn preachy and banal. I mean, did Lee really need to show the hero’s old Jewish momma passed out while cradling a pile of cash? It feels a touch bit anti-Semitic. And if Demetri Martin didn’t have the resources as an actor to cry on camera, then couldn’t Lee have given him Saline or CGI’d some tears in or something? Whoever heard of a dry cry? This movie also features the lamest father-son hug I’ve ever seen. Ever.
Having said that, I like Taking Woodstock. At its best, it recalls the gentle, evocative magic of Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous; it’s like the shot in Almost Famous where the hippie girl blows a kiss at the bus, but stretched to feature length. Of course, the way to see Woodstock is to see Michael Wadleigh’s epic documentary Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music, but for those who hate documentaries, Taking Woodstock will suffice.
One of the biggest complaints about the film is that Lee mostly shies away from the festival. I don’t think that’s a legitimate argument here. The story is about how Elliot helped bring Woodstock to White Lake, New York. He ran a run-down hotel with his parents in White Lake, and the festival took place at Max Yasgur’s farm a few miles away. Given that the story is told from Elliot’s point of view, it wouldn’t make sense to show the entire festival.
Still, you can’t help wonder what might have been. The scenes of the crowds, often captured in period-appropriate film stock, are among the film’s best. And when Elliot finally does make it to the farm, the images are transcendental. In the back of a VW, he drops acid with a friendly young hippie couple (memorably played by Paul Dano and Kelly Garner). Outside, he sees the crowd of 500,000 strong as an undulating, psychedelically colored ocean wave. I would have liked more moments like that.
Honestly, I didn’t expect much from Martin as a performer; ironic comedians usually don’t make for great actors. One of my biggest disappointments was Jonathan Groff’s portrayal of Michael Lang. Lang is one of the great characters in the book, but Groff is all wrong. He has the beatific look, but his sarcastic line readings are misplaced; it’s as if he doesn’t quite believe what he’s telling you. But the biggest letdown is Lee’s decision to excise one of Tiber’s main points, which is that the festival was a cornerstone for gay liberation. It’s as if, after Brokeback Mountain, Lee was afraid of repeating himself. It’s this sort of doubt and caution that the Woodstock festival was meant to obliterate.