Ang Lee's "Taking Woodstock" (opened August 28 in select San Diego Theaters including Landmark's La Jolla Village Theaters, Reading Gaslamp 15, Edwards Mira Mesa 18and AMC Plaza Bonita) looks to the people behind the scenes of the famous music festival and cultural event. The film is based on Elliot Tiber's book of the same title. My apologies for not getting to "Taking Woodstock" online sooner. Our Film Club discussion (which you can listen to) was on Wednesday but my disappointment in the film dulled my desire to write about it.
I admire Ang Lee's work in his native Taiwan. Films such as "Pushing Hands,' "The Wedding Banquet," and "Eat Drink Man Woman." These were elegant and often richly humorous comedies of manners. When Lee first moved into English language films he seemed interested in similar cultural explorations with films such as "Sense and Sensibility" and "The Ice Storm" displaying his subtle skills at observing culture. But with the box office success of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," Lee's Westernizing of the Hong Kong action film, I started to lose interest in his work. His films started to feel less personal and more commercial – not necessarily in terms of story but in terms of filmmaking style.
Now Lee takes on Woodstock, an American pop culture event. It could have been a good match. But Lee's "Taking Woodstock" serves up so many clichés and stereotypes that it feels like a film made by someone who had never met a real Jew, Vietnam vet, homosexual, or hippie. I noted in my review of "Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg," that "Taking Woodstock" displays more Jewish stereotypes now than that decades old TV show ever did. Aren't we supposed to be moving forward? Lee gives us a Jewish woman who hordes her money, a gay character who listens to Judy Garland, a Vietnam vet who keeps having war flashbacks, and acid-dropping, free-loving hippies. Maybe if those things were aspects of the characters rather than the defining traits of each it could be tolerated. But so many of the characters feel like sitcom caricatures that it distracts from what is actually an interesting perspective on Woodstock.
The film is based on Elliot Tiber's book about how Woodstock came to be. The book was semi-autobiographical with Elliot Teichberg (he penned the book under the name of Tiber) playing a pivotal role in bringing the three days of peace, love and music to his backyard. When the festival lost its original permits, Teichberg stepped in and contacted event producer Michael Lang (intriguingly played by newcomer Jonathan Groff as both laidback and business savvy although he looks an awful lot like Treat Williams from the movie version of "Hair"). Teichberg provided Lang and the event organizers with a base of operation at his parents’ Bethel motel. Teichberg also negotiated with local farmer Max Yasgur (nicely played by Eugene Levy) to use his land for the event.
James Schamus’ script focuses on the logistics of putting on the event whereas the book made the story more personal by giving equal weight to Elliot's growing awareness of gay rights and coming to terms with his own homosexuality. The book's title reflects the different approach Tiber took. The full title of his book was "Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert, and a Life." Schamus leaves out the riot (Stonewall) and the life (Teichberg's).
The perspective of never actually getting to the festival and seeing who's performing is refreshing but it's not enough to carry this whole film. The film's not helped by comedian Demetri Martin's performance as Elliot. Martin recedes into the background even though his character is seen overseeing much of the activity. The other performances from Imelda Staunton's Jewish mom to Emile Hirsch's haunted Vietnam vet to Paul Dano's tripping hippie are all one-dimensional and ineffective at best and offensive at worst. Liev Schreiber as a transvestite former Marine turned bodyguard delivers the performance that's the most fun to watch – heck seeing Schreiber in a blonde wig and mini-skirt is almost worth the price of admission because he makes the character seem so at ease despite the odd figure he cuts. The performance reminds me of John Lithgow's footballer turned transexual in "The World According to Garp."
"Taking Woodstock" (rated R for graphic nudity, some sexual content, drug use and language) gives us a fresh perspective on Woodstock on the event's 40th anniversary. But it's sad that the film is so conventional and bland in depicting something that proved so pivotal and vibrant in defining a generation. In predictable manner, Schamus ends the film with reference to the concert at Altamont, where the Rolling Stones played and a murder took place, bringing an end to the innocence of the Woodstock generation.
Companion viewing: "Woodstock" (the 1970 documentary), "Gimme Shelter," "The World According to Garp," "Hair"