The fading relevance of Woodstock as a relatable cultural touchstone, as well as the logistical headaches in store for anyone attempting to even partially restage such a mass event, would seem to put a dramatization out of mind for all but the most impassioned filmmaker, one seized with a desire to add to or alter the festival’s lasting impression. Enter, curiously, Ang Lee, whose commitment to filming the legend in Taking Woodstock is so firm, as evidenced by his boilerplate segues into special effects-assisted acid trips and reliance on every hippie cliché on record, that his deeper motivation as an artist is difficult to discern. Nor is his typically cautious, dispassionate style a suitable match for a story revolving around a cultural groundswell, though in fairness the bureaucracy and minutia of the festival’s staging is the A-story in this film, while the musical performances themselves are never seen at anything but a very distant remove.
A compressed subplot of gay liberation, centered around the bond formed between closeted festival organizer Elliot (comedian Demetri Martin) and Vilma (Liev Schreiber), a bulky, good-humored transvestite on hand to provide freelance security, is the sole nod here to issues of contemporary progressivism, and contains its most authentic and engaging scenes. The majority of the film, though, plays out like the lyrical accompaniment to a Dylanesque folk song, one in which a fast-talking slickster (Jonathan Groff, delightfully oily) arrives via limo in a sleepy upstate N.Y. hamlet and begins negotiating with the incredulous locals, including a pipe-smoking Eugene Levy, for the rights to hold an ostensibly modest music festival. Once papers are signed and (literal) bags of money are exchanged, a roiling youthquake descends, sending the locals into various stages of buyers’ remorse over their trampled fields, trashed hotel rooms, and overwhelmed facilities. Chief among the complainers is Elliot’s immigrant mother (Imelda Staunton, delivering a performance shrill enough to be this year’s Fiona Shaw in The Black Dahlia) while Elliot himself is torn between his duties as one of the event’s ringmasters and his desire to heed Vilma’s admonition to drop everything and “go see the center of the universe.”
Though rife with bare asses and swinging dicks (including one belonging to Emile Hirsch, playing a psychically wounded vet who warms to free love) and matter-of-fact about the possibilities of transcendence through LSD use and casual sex, Taking Woodstock fails to immerse us in the visceral feeling of being there, partly because the chosen mise-en-scène so closely lines up with 40 years of flower-power parody, and partly because of Lee’s general failure to sustain the tension of authenticity; his resort to aping the split-screen technique of 1970’s Woodstock is one particularly irksome, fit-for-television move. The film’s minor pleasures are to be found in the performances of Martin and Schreiber, whose characters have a lived-in quality and share a giddy, but muted enthusiasm for the newness in the air around them, with Elliot in particular enthralled with the possibilities of personal reinvention; a big city has just moved to him, instead of the reverse. Together, they ultimately come to a mutual appreciation of the festival as a spontaneous, transformative event, a crystallization of a national hunger for tolerance seductive enough to draw millions of footfalls to an obscure, hard-to-find field in the Catskills. Taking Woodstock’s closing invocation of the promoter’s next big gig—at a racetrack in Northern California—is a suitable reminder that a tidal wave as momentous as Woodstock can be pushed back.