DVD Release Date:  December 15, 2009
Theatrical Release Date:  August 28, 2009
Rating:  R (for graphic nudity, strong language, drug use and some sexual content)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  110 min.
Director:  Ang Lee
Cast:  Demetri Martin, Imelda Staunton, Henry Goodman, Eugene Levy, Liev Schreiber, Jonathan Groff

On the 40th anniversary of the summer that brought us both the Moon landing and Woodstock, it's telling which event Hollywood chose to make a film about.

Okay, I'll grant that the Apollo missions have been dramatized many times over the years while Woodstock has had maybe one notable documentary.  It's therefore understandable that filmmakers would want to tell the story we haven't seen before.  Now with Taking Woodstock we have that story and, come to find out, there's not much to tell. 

By the end, despite some worthy craftsmanship, this look at how it all came to be actually has the inverse effect of its likely intent:  it makes Woodstock feel less historically significant, not more.  Rather than comprehending the festival's impact, one is instead left with a rather underwhelming impression, even so far as to wonder, "So that was the event that defined a generation?  Really?  That one?!"  I mean you'd have to be high to think … oh, wait.

Based on the memoir by Elliot Tiber, Taking Woodstock is the story of how young Elliot Teichberg (Tiber's original last name) overcame resistance from both family and community to bring what would become the biggest concert event in history to a small New York town.  A young college-grad art designer in NYC, Elliot would spend weekends in rural Bethel, NY helping his parents manage their rundown motel while also serving as president of the local Chamber of Commerce.  After hearing that nearby Walkill, NY denied a permit for a big Music and Art Festival, Elliot saw an opportunity to help both the motel and the town by using his authority to grant a permit to Woodstock's promoters.

Of course, granting the permit was the easy part.  The actual implementation was much more difficult as the event wasn't only a logistical nightmare but also a clash of cultures (both geographical and generational).  It's a seemingly fertile milieu of dramatic conflict and thematic richness, yet the film's biggest surprise is how little there is of either (and especially the latter). 

Nothing more than a glorified episode of Behind the Music, Taking Woodstock offers only a familiar and expected behind-the-scenes account of how a festival comes together, and offers nothing to really think about or take with you.  I use the term "glorified" intentionally to emphasize the film's lone strength—the aesthetic.  An earthy visual texture and pastel desaturation blends seamlessly with (or at least perfectly duplicates) archival footage, Danny Elfman's acoustic score sounds as if laid straight to an old Hi-Fi track (complete with an aged, warbled quality) and a few flimsy wigs and fake beards aside, most people look authentic to the time.

Beyond the surface representation, however, director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain; Sense & Sensibility) offers little beyond the hippie stereotype.  Indeed, that stereotype is often heightened as that's all there really is to work with.  There are a few effectively tender moments between Elliot and his traditional Russian-Jewish immigrant parents (Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman provide nice emotional layers to these character-rich roles), but beyond that everyone else—from the hippie organizer to the artsy free-spirited drama troupe to the transgender head of security—is nothing more than a cliché.

The merit of a movie like this isn't in how it might persuade us to the worldview of the people being portrayed or in making us believe in what they did, the choices they made or the things they believed in.  Rather it is to help us understand them better, to have empathy for their motives even if we can't agree with their actions.  It's to make them dimensional and real.  In simple terms, it's to reveal the humanity beneath the stereotype.  Outside of Elliot's parents, Taking Woodstock fails at that fundamental purpose.

The most glaring example of this is Elliot himself, largely due to an uncharismatic turn by relative newcomer Demetri Martin (a former contributor on The Daily Show and current host of Important Things with Demetri Martin). Surprisingly, he plays Elliot with lethargy so consistent it's almost masochistic—and for a man dubbed the Woodstock Messiah, that's a problem.  Screenwriter James Schamus appears to have provided opportunities to flesh out a conflicted yet inspired young man, but Martin is rarely capable of being anything more than bored or burdened until he's kissed by a man or a pot-induced haze puts a lazy grin on his face.

As for the broader experience, that's a mixed bag.  Ang Lee succeeds (eventually) in putting us right in the middle of it all:  the sex (though mostly suggested rather than depicted), drinking, partying, drug-tripping, mass-nudity and mudslides, et al, but the one thing he avoids is—shockingly—the music.  Not visualizing the stage is understandable logistically (and narratively not necessary), but to relegate the soundtrack to just another auditory element without ever connecting it to the experience is a real head-scratcher.  So what we're left with is nothing more than an over-sized frat party gone insanely out of control.

The failure to broach (let alone achieve) revelatory insight is the fault of either the director or the subject.  Given Ang Lee's impressive career, I'll assume the latter.  His cinematic gifts effectively create the right tone, so it's never plodding or boring (although one can't help but wonder what Cameron Crowe could've done with the same material).  Yet while it all looks and feels right, Taking Woodstock could be compared to a tasty blend of spices and seasoning that lack the meat they were brought together to enhance—a metaphor, some would argue, that could also be said of Woodstock itself.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol Content:  Beer, cigarettes, and pot are consumed, and drug consumption is romanticized. 
  • Language/Profanity:  Full range of profanities used. 
  • Sexual Content/Nudity:  A few occasions of mass full-frontal public nudity as groups of people undress and dance around, as was common to the Woodstock experience.  Sexual acts are referenced or suggested (as in behind trees and bushes) but not fully visualized.  Two men kiss passionately in the context of a homosexual awakening; later, one is seen leaving the other's bed.
  • Violence/Other:  Rowdy and raucous atmosphere, but no violence in the traditional sense.

Jeffrey Huston is a film director, writer and producer at Steelehouse Productions in Tulsa, Okla.  He is also cohost of "Steelehouse Podcast," along with Steelehouse Executive Creative Mark Steele, where each week they discuss God in pop culture. 

To listen to the weekly podcast, please visit www.steelehouse.com or click here.  You can also subscribe to "Steelehouse Podcast" through iTunes.