Taking Woodstock

Time Out New York Project: Issue #726, August 27-September 2, 2009


Dir. Ang Lee. 2009. R. 110mins. Demetri Martin, Jonathan Groff, Liev Schreiber

As Ang Lee films go, Taking Woodstock is relatively painless. When he isn’t reaching for lofty, awards-baiting heights (Brokeback Mountain) or being deathly, soul-sappingly dull (The Ice Storm), the infrequent pleasures in the director’s work tend to rise to the surface. This adaptation of a memoir by Elliot Tiber, who was instrumental in organizing the 1969 “peace and love” concert, is most rewarding when it abandons narrative altogether. The centerpiece sequence, in which protagonist Elliot Teichberg (Martin) takes an acid trip with two VW-van hippies (Paul Dano and Kelli Garner), is as beautifully constructed as the delirious murder scene in Lust, Caution and the windswept skip through the desert in Hulk. It also resonates with a profound sense of possibility and regret—one of the few times when it doesn’t feel like Lee and his screenwriter, James Schamus, are looking back at these events from a mock-enlightened perspective.

The movie’s worst passages condescendingly play on our modern-day awareness: A peripheral character reveals that people are charging for bottled water; concert organizer Michael Lang (Groff) makes a closing-line mention of this awesome Rolling Stones concert that’s in the works. Such willy-nilly referencing negates the film’s effectiveness as a period piece and calls attention to some of the more questionable omissions. Seems it’s okay to have a sassy, gun-toting transsexual (Schreiber) dispense self-actualizing bons mots to the closeted movie Elliot while conveniently ignoring the real-world Elliot’s prominent role in the Stonewall Riots. Lee and Schamus make history blandly palatable; in the process, they rob the times and the people they’re portraying of their complications.—Keith Uhlich