Review: Taking Woodstock
3.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
A relative of mine owns a summer home in Bethel, N.Y.
Yasgur's Farm, the 600-acre patch of rolling, alfalfa-covered hills that, for three unforgettable days, served as the site of Woodstock, is just a short drive from the house. I took that drive multiple times in my youth, and even saw a few concerts at the still-in-commission venue. At 10, I couldn't quite grasp the epic magnitude of the now 40-year-old event's cultural significance, but I knew enough to understand that the land beneath my feet wasn't just another field. Walking on it, I was overcome by the same sensation that struck me while touring the battlefields at Gettysburg: this place, the things that happened here and the people who made them happen are nothing less than the stuff of legend. There was a bit of magic in every step.
As I watched Ang Lee's “Taking Woodstock,” a fun, albeit meandering behind-the-scenes look at the planning and production of the historical hippiefest, I felt some of that magic return. Written by Focus Features president and frequent Lee collaborator James Schamus, the film is an adaptation of the memoir, “Taking Woodstock: A Riot, A Concert, and a Life,” co-written by Elliot Tiber, who, as a young man, put the small town of Bethel on the map by assisting in the organization of what arguably became the world's most famous rock concert.
In the summer of 1969, Elliot – who's portrayed by stand-up comedian Demetri Martin – takes a break from his interior design job in Greenwich Village to help his parents, Jake and Sonia (Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton), in keeping the family's run-down motel business afloat. After hearing that the coordinators of Woodstock have just been denied accommodations by yet another nearby town, Elliot, hoping to draw revenue to the motel, contacts head Woodstock mastermind Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) and offers the use of his family's property. When that land proves too swampy, the industrious (yet slightly insecure) Elliot – who's in possession of a much-needed music festival permit and is also the president of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce – introduces Lang and company to local farmer Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy). Negotiations are made, an agreement is reached, and Elliot and his family are given a hefty sum to provide lodging for the impending hippie invasion.
As is common in Lee's work, the first act of “Woodstock” unfolds at a leisurely pace. But unlike the director's other titles of which this is true (“Brokeback Mountain,” “Sense and Sensibility”), the foundations being laid here are only moderately successful in piquing our interests. Aside from the occasional jolt of Staunton's fierce and funny performance (Sonia, a highly animated Russian imigrant, is hilariously uptight), the initial string of slow-going scenarios – trips to the bank, encounters with a nudity-prone theater troupe that lives in the family's barn – is like a line of hurdles before the stride...they just happen to be beautifully shot by Eric Gautier (“Summer Hours”). It isn't until Yasgur signs on the dotted line and the masses start to trickle in (an evolution that Lee credibly and cleverly illustrates), that “Woodstock,” as it should, develops into a bustling party, introducing us to consistently groovy supporting characters.
In addition to Lang (Groff, with his persuasive stoner swagger, makes a strong screen debut), Lang's assistant, Tisha (Meryl Streep's dead-ringer daughter, Mamie Gummer), and a conventional but likable Vietnam vet named Billy (a shaggy Emile Hirsch, who looks most at home in the period), we also meet Vilma (Liev Schreiber), a transvestite and former marine who becomes Elliot's unlikely head of security. Played squarely by Schreiber (who adds a little contralto to his baritone voice), Vilma also becomes a confidant to Elliot, who's gay and in the process of finding himself. Refreshingly, and in the spirit of the film's and the era's progressive theme of free love, Elliot's sexuality is seen as no more outstanding than any other element of the plot.
What's handled less smoothly is the sheer volume of activity, specifically in the scenes leading up to the concert's commencement. In an attempt to evoke Michael Wadleigh's Oscar-winning 1970 documentary (and perhaps even his own “Hulk”), Lee makes persistent use of split-screen, which feels appropriate and nostalgic when depicting the celebration's many walks of life, but is a nightmare when showing its frantic preparation in competing, shoddy-looking frames. Similarly, the ample number of characters we meet, as amusing as those characters may be, makes establishing a truly meaningful link to any of them an impossibility. “Woodstock” is an enjoyable party, but it's the type in which you try to interact with everyone in a limited time frame, and thus, each interaction is fleeting and frivolous.
If there's one person to whom we must connect, it's Elliot, our vessel whose maturation takes place in conjunction with the development of the festival. The biggest failure of “Woodstock” is the casting of Martin, whose got a great look as the awkward overachiever, but has hardly a shred of personality. There is so much energy and liveliness surrounding Elliot, yet he, the one who supposedly made it all happen, has about as much spark as a wet joint. Casting a little-known lead was an inspired decision. Casting a little-known lead who needs to carry the film but can't, was not.
I admire the fact that Lee chose not to recreate or even show the stage performances. Collectively, they remain this sort of unseen mystical force that's larger than life. There is one brief but exceptionally beautiful scene in which Elliot, having just dropped acid and been reborn as a child of the flower, gazes down at the vast “ocean” of attendees and the small, glowing stage that pulsates at its center. Calling on some elegant CGI to visualize Elliot's hallucinations, Lee puts forth a powerful image, giving us just a glimpse of what appears to be a living thing with a beating heart. Even if enhanced by impossible, chemically-induced colors, that image instantly brought me back to my youth at Yasgur's, recreating what I myself envisioned as I surveyed those same fields. Such moments, and their ability to transport, make Lee's flawed “Woodstock” a worthwhile trip.