'Taking Woodstock,' But Not All That Seriously

W: Kelli Garner, Demetri Martin, and Paul Dano in 'Taking Woodstock' i i

hide captionUnder the influence: Freed by the Woodstock vibe — and a certain mood-altering substance — shy painter Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin, center) discovers the Aquarian age with two hippies (Kelli Garner and Paul Dano) in a classic VW van.

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W: Kelli Garner, Demetri Martin, and Paul Dano in 'Taking Woodstock'

Under the influence: Freed by the Woodstock vibe — and a certain mood-altering substance — shy painter Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin, center) discovers the Aquarian age with two hippies (Kelli Garner and Paul Dano) in a classic VW van.

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Taking Woodstock

  • Director: Ang Lee
  • Genre: Drama, comedy, music
  • Running Time: 120 minutes
Rated R: Graphic nudity, sexual content, drug use and language

With: Henry Goodman, Edward Hibbert, Imelda Staunton, Demetri Martin, Kevin Chamberlin

Forty years after the hippies invaded Yasgur's Farm in upstate New York, Woodstock remains a muddy bog on the cultural landscape; it's an enduring symbol of ideals realized and squandered, ground zero for the great rift within the baby-boomer generation, the mighty wellspring of stock footage for hackneyed movies about the '60s. The latest sign that the three-day concert has become over-freighted with meaning? The seminal documentary Woodstock — of which an anniversary edition has recently, inevitably, been released — is now four hours long instead of three.

So credit director Ang Lee and screenwriter James Schamus for slipping through the side door with Taking Woodstock, a genial comedy stationed so far from Jimi Hendrix & Co. that the stage looks like a shimmering amoeba. By telling the story of Woodstock from the vantage of Catskills motel proprietors, Lee and Schamus are doing something akin to putting the gravedigger at the center of Hamlet. It's an inspired tack, but it requires a lightness of touch that doesn't come easily to these filmmakers, who seem a little too eager to unburden themselves after the one-two romantic tragedies Brokeback Mountain and Lust, Caution. Mainly, they're guilty of overcompensating: There's a fine line between Woodstock as an offbeat slice-of-life and Woodstock as a sitcom in tie-dyes.

As Taking Woodstock expands into a kaleidoscopic — and yes, multi-screened — survey of the cultural landscape, the center doesn't hold. Working from his memoir, the film follows Elliot Teichberg (whose book was written under the name Tiber), a closeted New York artist who stretched a "music and arts festival" permit to bring the event to Bethel, N.Y., after it was dropped from another location. Best known as a stand-up comedian and former Daily Show correspondent, Demetri Martin plays Elliot as a passive, put-upon nebbish in the mold of Dustin Hoffman circa The Graduate, more or less inviting the rest of the film's larger-than-life ensemble to eat him alive.

Lee and Schamus are interested in the collision between individual passions and social dictates — think Brokeback or The Ice Storm, or even Hulk for that matter — but framing Woodstock as Elliot's coming-out party proves awfully narrow.

Jonathan Groff and Demetri Martin in 'Taking Woodstock' i i

hide captionIt's Elliot's initiative that brings concert producer Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff, left) — and eventually a horde numbering in the hundreds of thousands — to the vicinity of Yasgur's Farm for what would become a landmark event.

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Jonathan Groff and Demetri Martin in 'Taking Woodstock'

It's Elliot's initiative that brings concert producer Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff, left) — and eventually a horde numbering in the hundreds of thousands — to the vicinity of Yasgur's Farm for what would become a landmark event.

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Henry Goodman, Imelda Staunton and Demetri Martin in 'Taking Woodstock' i i

hide captionOn the verge of losing their dilapidated motel to foreclosure, Elliot's parents (Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton) see dollar signs in the prospect of the concert.

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Henry Goodman, Imelda Staunton and Demetri Martin in 'Taking Woodstock'

On the verge of losing their dilapidated motel to foreclosure, Elliot's parents (Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton) see dollar signs in the prospect of the concert.

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In fact there are at least five better movies to be made, drawing on the same source material, around members of the supporting cast: Imelda Staunton, so restrained as a back-alley abortionist in Vera Drake, cuts loose (a little too loose, frankly) as Elliot's brusque mother, who converts their dilapidated family motel into a festival hub — complete with surcharges galore. Better still is Jonathan Groff as Woodstock Ventures head Michael Lang, a corporate shark in the guise of a serene hippie, and Eugene Levy as Max Yasgur, who proves every bit as shrewd as Lang as he negotiates the lease of his farmland.

Taking Woodstock has a winning generosity of spirit, but even that serves chiefly to underline the film's curious inconsequentiality, as if it were a two-hour pilot for a show about a charmingly eccentric family and a rotating cast of colorful guest stars. Though Lee and Schamus are wise to play down the symbolic grandeur of the event and focus more on the quirky individuals transformed by it, they wind up with a movie that's too narrow and glancing for its own good. What might have been an Altman-esque tapestry has been scaled to the size of a tea cozy.

Scott Tobias is the film editor of The A.V. Club.

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