What, though, was Focus Features smoking when it decided to open Taking Woodstock two weeks after the 40th commemoration of the actual event? Maybe I’m wrong, yet I’d say the buzz has faded, man. Or what buzz there was—due to a combination of our fragmented media culture and my lack of much media at all while on vacation earlier this month, I pretty much missed it. Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be, and the main stage was crowded with other golden oldies from the summer of 1969, among them the moon landing, the Manson murders and Chappaquiddick, which has been churning up headlines again. Director Ang Lee and writer and co-producer James Schamus, the co-president of Focus, aren’t quite striking while the iron is white-hot.
Then again, the film is more Woodstock-ish than Woodstock, a pot brownie with some Capra corn mixed in. My memories are purple hazy, but I recall sitting through Woodstock the documentary once, perking up for the best bits. (Last man on Earth Charlton Heston, an unlikely viewer even under the entertainment-deprived circumstances, sat through it hundreds of times in 1971’s The Omega Man.) Taking Woodstock, a sort of making-of the event, is the same way, though the choice moments are few. Most of them come from the real-life anecdotes sprinkled in: the organizers ordering lots of brown rice to “keep the hippies from shitting in the fields,” or the mild electrification of metal surfaces after a lightning storm, which crimped the performance schedule. It’s the fact-based stuff that’s a bummer.
Taking Woodstock is taken from a recent memoir by Elliot Tiber, who brought the festival to his hometown of Bethel, New York. Tiber, the youngest president of the local chamber of commerce, was always looking to class up the sticks with culture imported from New York City, where he worked as a fledgling interior designer during the week. Nothing worked: Not the rock festival he sponsored, not the “underground cinema,” not the avant-garde acting troupe who lived in the barn of the El Monaco, the mildewed motel run by his parents. Deliverance came from the sky, as Woodstock organizer Michael Lang flew in by helicopter to scout Bethel locations once the neighboring town of Wallkill passed on the opportunity at the 11th hour. Tiber had the necessary permits, and the connection to Max Yasgur and his bountiful fields. As the exclusive ticket agent for the event he then acquired his share of the headaches as the show swamped all projections. At festival time the teetering El Monaco (given a reprieve by the organizers, who bought it for the summer and paid in cash) and the slumbering rural community were benignly besieged by the never-ending parade of 500,000 long-hairs, freaks, peaceniks, artists, and tokers who hoofed it to Woodstock Nation when the local roads choked with cars and became endless parking lots.
The story has numerous possibilities for multi-character comedy-drama, but Lee, who took the Incredible Hulk as seriously as Robert Oppenheimer or Sir Thomas More, isn’t exactly Mr. Laughs. He and Schamus seem to have left their sense of humor on Brokeback Mountain. The funny people in the cast (a formidable cross-section of New York theater and indie talent) are given material that’s at best mild, and at worst caricatured. The chief offender is the gifted Imelda Staunton, as Tiber’s shrill, penny-pinching Russian mother, a Jew so money-grubbing and disapproving the inglourious basterds wouldn’t lift a baseball bat to save her from the Nazis.
More promising characters, like Eugene Levy’s flintily folksy Yasgur, drop from view once Tiber starts meandering through his own personal journey during the proverbial weekend that changed everything. He meets the likes of a motherly, two-fisted transvestite (Live Schreiber) and re-encounters a Vietnam veteran friend (Emile Hirsch) who finds a measure of peace in the chaos of the concert. On the outskirts of the event he drops acid with a hippie couple (Paul Dano and Kelli Garner), cuing split screens and modest “psychedelic” effects. None of this terribly illuminating—about the only person who’ll be amused is Lang, who, having failed to get a 40th anniversary Woodstock event off the ground, will be happy to see his younger self portrayed as a dashingly enigmatic figure trotting around on horseback. (He’s played by Jonathan Groff, a Tony nominee for the hit musical Spring Awakening. Meryl Streep’s actress daughter, Mamie Gummer, plays his equally inscrutable arm candy.)
A movie that’s kind of about Woodstock is also a roundabout coming-of-age story, with Tiber, a closeted gay man partially liberated by the Stonewall riots earlier that summer, finding the strength to open the door at Woodstock. (That reads more dramatic than it is; like everything else in the movie it’s tepid, muted.) But there’s a weird disconnect involving the lead. Tiber is played by the comedian Demetri Martin, who was chosen, says Schamus, for his “non-assaultive” personality—and gives the kind of abashed, what-am-I-doing-here-at-the-center-of-this-movie performance we’re seeing too much of lately, in the collected works of Michael Cera and Jesse Eisenberg. Martin, who probably gets carded in bars, plays Tiber like a guy in his early 20s, but Tiber was 34 at the time of Woodstock and the actor is 36. Knowing this only in retrospect, I wonder now if it was intentional, to hook a college-age audience with a surrogate for an experience long past. If so, it didn’t work; Martin shoulders Tiber’s burdens too passively to interest an audience with two horror sequels to choose from this weekend.
It’s depressing to declare a new film from an Academy Award winner as respectable and conscientious as Ang Lee a bad trip, and worse to have to do it twice in a row, following the too cautious Lust, Caution. But lava lamps have more energy and momentum than Taking Woodstock.