Ang Lee’s ‘Taking Woodstock’ Lays Down Too Mellow a Vibe to Be Memorable

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Rating: 2.5/5.0

CHICAGO – More about the vibe surrounding the three days of peace and love that would become the most influential festival in history than the actual music itself, Ang Lee’s “Taking Woodstock” is a frustrating drama with individual elements that work but a cinematic set list that is ultimately disjointed and unsatisfying.

Late in “Taking Woodstock,” Elliot Teichberg’s (Demetri Martin) father (Henry Goodman) asks his son if he enjoyed the concert. Elliot says he made a few friends and that “It was great.” That’s the essential dialogue exchange in “Taking Woodstock,” a film about finding community, acceptance, and friendship more than one about bands, singers, or actual creativity.

Taking Woodstock.
Taking Woodstock.
Photo credit: Focus Features

It’s a unique and interesting way to approach the legend of Woodstock but also one that feels like too much to try and capture in a two-hour drama/comedy with only one real central character. “Taking Woodstock” might have worked as a “Nashville”-esque ensemble piece but writer James Schamus and director Ang Lee focus all their energy on a lead who is, to be frank, not that interesting, and turn the rest of their characters into two-dimensional cliches for him to bounce off on his way out of town.

Martin stars as Teichberg, a New Yorker forced to return to the Catskills and take care of his parents (Goodman & Imelda Staunton) run down motel. Every summer, Elliot plans an arts and music festival, and this year there just happens to be a few musicians without a home after a nearby town runs out what would become the Woodstock festival.

Taking Woodstock.
Taking Woodstock.
Photo credit: Focus Features

Teichberg contacts the legendary Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) and convinces him that his small town would make a perfect fit for their big festival. Eugene Levy plays the famous Max Yasgur, the farmer who had enough land for the show, Emile Hirsch plays an old friend returned from Vietnam, Liev Schreiber plays a cross-dressing Marine who volunteers to be security, Dan Fogler leads a theatre troupe that lives in the Teichberg’s barn, and Paul Dano & Kelli Garner appear as a pair of acid-loving hippies who guide Elliot on an influential trip.

The problem is that none of these characters register. They all feel like a cliche that was necessary for the plot, as if Schamus knew he needed a battle-scarred vet, a few hippies, a penny-pinching mother, a cross-dresser, a crush for Elliot, a few more hippies, some mobsters to stop by, etc. Every supporting player that pops up feels like a two-dimensional obligation to the period recreation more than character worthy of genuine interest.

So much effort is spent developing Elliot, who is in nearly every scene, that everything else falls away. It’s an odd decision to tell the story of a developing community through the arc of one character, and it’s ultimately a damaging one because that one character simply isn’t dramatic enough to warrant the cinematic energy. Elliot Teichberg was a nice guy who helped out his parents, played a major role in history, and moved on. I wanted to know more about everyone that was around him and never felt like I did.

Ultimately, the technical team, the ensemble, and even the sometimes-clever dialogue keep the proceedings brisk and usually entertaining. It’s an expertly made film by talented people. It’s more that “Taking Woodstock” couldn’t have worked as conceived more than any failings of the actual production. It’s further proof that even the best of intentions and the most talented people in the world won’t make an effective film if the foundation doesn’t work.

‘Taking Woodstock’ stars Demetri Martin, Imelda Staunton, Henry Goodman, Emile Hirsch, Paul Dano, Kelli Garner, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Eugene Levy, Dan Fogler, Jonathan Groff, Richard Thomas, and Liev Schreiber. It was written by James Schamus and directed by Ang Lee. It opens on August 28th, 2009. It is rated R.

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