Taking Woodstock (2009): Ang Lee’s Light, Shallow, Diffuse Tale of Seminal Event

Light, shallow, and diffuse, “Taking Woodstock,” Ang Lee’s take on the seminal musical event of 1969, is a major artistic disappointment, arguably the versatile director’s weakest film in years, particularly coming after such highlights as “Brokeback Mountain” and “Lust, Caution,” both winners of the Venice Film Festival’s top award.


Grade: C (*1/2* out of *****)

World-premiering at the Cannes Film Fest, the film was greeted with mixed to negative response, so foreign (i.e. non-U.S.) critics seemed to like the picture slightly better than their American counterparts.  Likely to be dismissed by the more cerebral critics as a minor work, sort of an amusing divertissement, the picture may have hard time finding a broad audience when it is released by Focus Features in late August, in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the historical event.

The failure of “Taking Woodstock” is largely attributable to James Schamus’s rambling scenario, a loose adaptation of the far more interesting and personal book, “Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert, and A Life,” by Elliot Tober and Tom Monte.


It’s doubly frustrating that Schamus, an exec-producer and collaborator on Lee’s picture for the past 15 years, has created a tale full of visual clichés (such as a long scene of acid trip-sex, which all but stops the little narrative flow the movie has) and thematic stereotypes. 

This is particularly the case of the adult Jewish characters, played so broadly by the (British?) actors that they might have appeared in a borscht play in the Catskills.  In today’s context, their portraiture might offend Jewish viewers.  (It’s hard not to notice that all the mothers in Ang Lee’s pictures, including the Taiwanese ones, follow the same pattern. (See my reviews)


Sporadically amusing, but never engaging or illuminating in any political or other significant ways, “Taking Woodstock” comes across as an updated version of the MGM’s musicals of the “let’s put on a show in our back yard” ilk, with all the background and staple characters associated with that genre down to the barn, here in the back of a motel in which a theatrical troupe is rehearsing, and later performing in the nude.


Made under the shadow of the terrific Oscar-winning documentary “Woodstock,” which is as powerful and impressive today as it was in 1970, Lee’s film struggles to achieve a distinct identity and point of view almost from the first scene.  Thus, it’s legitimate to ask what “Taking Woodstock” is really about.  The film underplays its gay angle and the coming out of its major character, Elliot Teichberg, who later published the aforementioned book under the name of Elliot Tiber.


On one level, the movie is a farcical comedy about a Jewish family, headed by domineering mother Sonia (Imelda Staunton) and passive father Jake Teichberg (Henry Goodman), immigrants-survivors of the Holocaust and their loyal son Elliot, who tries to help them out in difficult economic times.  One another level, it’s a story of how the musical event came into being despite objections from various sources.


Changing the age of the protagonist from mid-30s in the book to mid-20s in the film, in order to make him part of the generation of the hippies and flower children distorts one of the main points of the literary source, that it’s never too late for an American to get liberated and find himself.


In the production notes, producer Celia Costas observes that lead Demetri Martin, a stand-up comic, was “perfect for Elliot, like Dustin Hoffman was perfect for ‘The Graduate.’”  But that’s the only similarity to Mike Nichols’ generation defining comedy.


Composed of set-pieces that never cohere into a unified whole, the yarn is populated by characters in search of definition, attributes and a semblance of an engaging plot.  They include Billy (Emile Hirsch), a troubled Vietnam vet, whose early scenes are disturbing (as they should be), but later on, he’s left to his own devices and seems to belong to another picture.  Ditto for theater troupe leader Devon (Dan Fogler),  Billy’s brother Dan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), and particularly Vilma (Liv Schreiber), the cross-dressing ex-Marine who appears out of nowhere and goes nowhere as the saga unfolds.

Along with the writing, the acting is quite poor. With the exception of Eugene Levy, there is not a single good performance.  In the lead, stand up comic Demetri Martin is simply miscast, lacking the charisma and vibrance to convey the transformation of his character–and to hold togteher the overly episodic narrative.

As the Jewish parents, Godman and Staunton are also disappointing, rendering stereotypical turns that are borderline offensive.  Imelda Staunton, so good in Mike Leigh’s “Vera Drake,” turns in such a broad and one-dimensional performance that she nearly chews the scenery; running around like a witch, she even carries a broom with her.  Usually good, reliable actors Emile Hirsch and Liev Schreiber act as if they belong in other movie.

Steering clear of any politics–societal, sexual, or domestic–“Taking Woodstock” unfolds as a nostalgic but ultimately unmemorable trip into one of the most memorable moments in American film history.




Elliot Teichberg – Demetri Martin
Devon – Dan Fogler
Jake Teichberg – Henry Goodman
Michael LangJonathan Groff
Max Yasgur – Eugene Levy
Dan – Jeffrey Dean Morgan
Sonia Teichberg – Imelda Staunton
Billy – Emile Hirsch
Vilma – Liev Schreiber
John Roberts – Skylar Astin
Jackson Spiers – Kevin Chamberlin
VW Girl – Kelli Garner
VW Guy – Paul Dano
Joel Rosenman – Daniel Eric Gold
Tisha – Mamie Gummer
British Gentleman – Edward Hibbert
Mel – Steven Kunken
Bob – Andy Prosky
Stan – Kevin Sussman
Reverend Don – Richard Thomas
Paul – Darren Pettie




A Focus Features release. 

Produced by James Schamus, Ang Lee, Celia Costas.

Executive producer, Michael Hausman.
Directed by Ang Lee. Screenplay, James Schamus, based on the book “Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert, and a Life” by Elliot Tiber with Tom Monte.

Camera, Eric Gautier; editor, Tim Squyres; music, Danny Elfman; production designer, David Gropman; art director, Peter Rogness; set decorator, Ellen Christiansen De Jonge; costume designer, Joseph G. Aulisi; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS), Drew Kunin; supervising sound editors, Eugene Gearty, Philip Stockton; re-recording mixers, Reilly Steele, Gearty; visual effects supervisor, Brendan Taylor; visual effects, Mr. X Inc.; associate producers, Patrick Cupo, David Sauers; assistant director, Michael Hausman; casting, Avy Kaufman.

Running time: 120 MIN.