I'm going to join in a rock 'n' roll band
I'm going to get back to the land
And get my soul free ...
Joni Mitchell, "Woodstock"
On July 20, 1969, a man walked on the moon. Three weekends later, about a half-million people attended, or tried to attend, the Woodstock music festival three days of peace, love and music that still stand as an emblem for all that was groovy and messy about the late '60s. In anticipation of the concert's 40th anniversary, Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock documentary was released in a director's cut on DVD and Blu-ray. And on Aug. 14, a day before the exact anniversary, Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock opened in U.S. theaters, although it had its world premiere weeks prior at Cannes. (See the top 10 Cannes Film Festival movies of all time.)
This is one of those little movies set against a big event, like I Wanna Hold Your Hand (how four girls got into Ed Sullivan's theater to see the Beatles) or Love Field (Diane Lane as a JFK fan in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963). Lee's film is screenwriter-producer James Schamus' adaptation of Elliot Tiber's reminiscence about his small but crucial role in bringing the mammoth concert to his hometown.
The film's Elliot (Comedy Central's Demetri Martin) is a New York City decorator who's come back to his Catskills home to help his parents manage their decrepit motel, which is facing bankruptcy in the early summer of '69. His parents (Brit theatrical lights Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton) are as eager for him to stay there forever as he is determined to leave. But when he reads that the Woodstock festival planned for that August has been denied a permit in a nearby town, he calls the promoters and invites them to White Lake and its neighboring town Bethel, where farmer Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy) might be willing to rent it to them for $5,000. Make that $75,000, when he learns how desperate they are.
Lee, who was born and raised in Taiwan and didn't head to the States until the late '70s, has often shown an outsider's acuity in portraying the subtleties and sadness of American folkways. His The Ice Storm, set in 1973, and Brokeback Mountain, which spans three decades beginning in the '60s, couldn't be more simpatico with the quiet desperation of ordinary folks. In this ostensible comedy, though, his ear is tin, his eye myopic. The right-wing townsfolk, artsy theater people and visiting hippies come across as the shallowest stereotypes. Lee's attempts to imitate the split-screen and psychedelic cinema tricks of the period have nowhere near the originals' garish grandeur.
The business end of the Woodstock enterprise holds some interest, but the family dynamic is sitcom-broad and contains a near libelous caricature of immigrant Jews. Maybe Elliot's mother really was a screaming, tightfisted tyrant, and his father the standard henpecked husband. And maybe Lee couldn't find American actors who'd fit his view of these cartoon creatures. But to outfit Staunton in a housedress that is gargantuanly padded in the bosom and butt is to force an exceptional actress into unintended parody, and to reduce the Holocaust-survivors generation to Borscht Belt jokes. Staunton has made a long trip south from Oscar-nominated actress to Vera Drake, yenta.
A few actors crawl out of the rubble. Give Jonathan Groff (a major new cutie) a hand for turning the Woodstock weekend's chief promoter, Michael Lang, into a figure so charismatic, and so central to the actual concert, that viewers will think the movie should have been about him. Liev Schreiber also earns credit for not being buried under the stereotype of a muscular cross-dresser who serves as Elliot's security chief. The vaunted Broadway actor shows something we hadn't seen before: nice legs!
The rest of the movie is a mess Lee's first total miscalculation, his first wholly inessential film. He'll do better; he almost has to. The rest of us with any interest in a 40-year-old rock concert can get the DVD of Woodstock, and maybe sing along to a new version of Joni Mitchell's tune:
I'm going on down to Wadleigh's film
I'm going to have a cinematic blast
Where the music lives tho it's from the past
And the film ain't by Ang Lee.