If Woodstock represented the coming-of-age of an entire generation, then surely Taking Woodstock is the ultimate coming-of-age film. Right? Well, not so much. Ang Lee’s latest is a mostly pleasant, mostly forgettable tale about the young man who helped host the most famous music festival in history. However, the film is light on the Rock and heavy on the Roll; it inoffensively passes you by and at the end of it all you can think is, ‘well, that was … nice‘. Lee’s latest comes across as Cameron Crowe-lite. As anyone who has seen Elizabethtown will agree, that’s not a good thing.
Deadpan comedian Demetri Martin stars as Elliot Teichberg, a closeted interior decorator who has been forced to help his imposing mother (Imelda Staunton) and sickly father (Henry Goodman) run their flailing Catskills motel. Faced with foreclosure, Elliot contacts the recently displaced Woodstock Music Festival committee and offers them a venue: his parent’s land. Lord knows their motel could use the business of a couple thousand teenagers. Of course, much to the annoyance of the neighbours, more than a couple thousand show up. In fact, the final figure was somewhere north of 400,000. If you wanted admission to the Teichberg’s motel, you couldn’t be opposed to sharing your room with another person or six.
I’m not sure why they changed the last name of real-life host Elliot Tiber to Teichberg. After all, the film is based on Tiber’s memoir of the same name; there can’t have been too many other closeted motel owners who gave a home to Woodstock. Were they trying to keep his identity ambiguous? Regardless, Martin makes an impressive feature film debut in the lead role. At times he is frustratingly passive and he doesn’t quite sell the requisite coming-of-age revelation, but you can’t deny his charming appeal. Staunton and Goodman are also excellent as the parents who experience their own coming-of-age. There are a lot of pleasant surprises to be found in the film’s smaller roles. Liev Schreiber steals the show as a transvestite security guard, while Emile Hirsch brings some depth to an underwritten Vietnam vet.
Sadly, the wind is completely taken from the film’s sails (or should that be ‘freak flag’) in the third act, as all the drama disappears in a haze of Mary Jane. Many of the characters introduced at the beginning of the film are completely abandoned, while the rest decide to just ‘groove’ and experiment with drugs. I mean, hey, I’m no narc. It was Woodstock. I can dig it. But much in the same way that it’s no fun to be the only sober guest at a party, neither is it enjoyable watching characters giggling to themselves over something we can’t see. As the film plods to its conclusion, it begins to feel as if even Lee stopped paying attention. Maybe all that suspicious smoke finally got to him.
Ang Lee’s shining quality has always been his ability to find the universality of his subjects. At first glance, the Taiwanese director may not seem like a perfect fit for a film about an iconic American music festival. However, a quick scan of his filmography will reveal that he has previously captured both American cowboys and the British aristocracy with greater success than most filmmakers. Lee goes out of his way to make his subjects relatable, no matter how distant they may seem. Heck, he even turned the normally furious Hulk into a sad-sack with daddy issues. Unfortunately, Lee’s talent works against him in his latest film. The audience is given a grand tour behind the curtain of Woodstock; the tedious planning and approving of permits, the renting of motel rooms, the cleaning of porta-loos. Is this history’s greatest love-in or just another Big Day Out? The added realism strips away the wonder. Lee can’t tell us how the card trick works and then still expect us to think it’s magic.
The most glaring problem with Taking Woodstock is the complete omission of any notable music from the era. Sure, I understand that music rights are expensive, but this is like trying to make a biopic on Bill Gates and not being allowed to mention the word ‘Microsoft’. Even Wayne Campbell got Aerosmith to perform at his music festival in Wayne’s World 2. Does Mike Myers really have more clout than Ang Lee? Seemingly to compensate, Lee populates the film with tired hippy stereotypes to remind us that, yes, this film indeed takes place in the 1960’s. It adds to the overall disenchantment and relative failure of Taking Woodstock. It’s funny at times and even touching. But at no point did I feel like I was at Woodstock and surely that was the whole point.