Review of Taking Woodstock

(for ffwdweekly.com)

For a movie about one of the culturally defining moments of the last century (at least in terms of baby boomer nostalgia and the mythology that surrounds it), Taking Woodstock is surprisingly flat. Based on the autobiography of Elliot Tiber, the man responsible for bringing the floundering music festival to the sleepy hamlet of White Lake, New York, Taking Woodstock largely puts the music in the background, focussing instead on the personalities and the community behind the fest. Even with the less music-centric approach, though, the film often feels less like a cultural statement than a collection of ’60s touchstones.

Standup comic and occasional actor Demetri Martin stars as Tiber and though he’s in nearly every scene in the film, he fails to make much of an impression. His wide-eyed persona and deadpan delivery work well on stage, but on screen, they make him something of a non-entity, emotionally detached from the rest of the film. It doesn’t help that a number of the other actors are busy over-playing their roles, either. Henry Goodman actually turns in a wonderfully restrained performance as Tiber’s father, but Imelda Staunton portrays his mother as a caricature of a Russian battleaxe and Emile Hirsch is equally in stereotype mode as a Vietnam vet returned to his hometown just in time for the love-in to beat all love-ins.

If the performances seem to be all over the place, it’s because director Ang Lee never establishes a consistent tone for the film. Hirsch in particular seems torn between two films — his character is undergoing some serious post-war stress, but he’s so two-dimensional that it’s hard to see him as anything other than comic relief. When Lee moves towards winking irony in jokes about bottled-water price-gouging and a Woodstock follow-up with the Rolling Stones (“It’s gonna be beautiful”), it’s too on-the-nose to elicit anything but groans.

For all its failings, though, Taking Woodstock isn’t a total loss. As the film progresses, it becomes easier to forgive the flaws and get swept away in its mythmaking. Watching small-town squares loosen up and seeing a generation of disenfranchised youth pull together for “three days of peace and music” almost makes up for the obligatory acid trip (set to “The Red Telephone” by Love, a band that wasn’t actually at Woodstock) and the equally obligatory parents-accidentally-getting-high sequence. Almost, but not quite.

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