Taking Woodstock: No Popular Support for Lee’s Disappointing Film

Will there be an audience for Ang Lee’s “Taking Woodstock,” when Focus Features releases the nostalgic picture on August 28, 2009?  Inevitable comparisons will be made with the landmark documentary, Woodstock,” which was made in 1969 and won the Oscar Award. (See my review)


Light, shallow, and diffuse, “Taking Woodstock,” 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.


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)


Sporadically amusing, but never 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 1969, 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.


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.


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 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.

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