Woodstock was billed as "three days of peace and music." But whatever else went on, a lot -- probably even most -- of the half-million people who attended the legendary 1969 festival missed the music completely because they couldn't get anywhere near the stage.
So perhaps it's fitting that the music feels like an afterthought in Ang Lee's "Taking Woodstock." You don't see or hear any of the performers on the stage, which feels as remote as a raft in the middle of a vast sea. Instead, "Taking Woodstock" dramatizes the back-story and behind-the-scenes machinations that took the festival to Max Yasgur's dairy farm in rural New York state.
The film is based on "Knock On Woodstock," the 1994 memoir by Elliot Tiber, played here by comic actor Demetri Martin. As portrayed by Martin, Tiber is a repressed, deeply closeted blank slate. The '60s are passing him by as he toils in his family's run-down motel, cowering in fear of his tyrannical mother (Imelda Staunton).
With debts mounting, the bank is about to close the motel down when Elliot sees an opportunity -- a music festival in search of a site. So Elliot lures the festival to his town, where he has a permit for an arts festival. After consummating the deal over chocolate milk, festival impresario Michael Lang sets up headquarters at the Tiber family motel. Madness ensues as events spiral out of control, culminating with an estimated 500,000 young people descending on White Lake and turning it into "the center of the universe" for a long weekend.
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"Taking Woodstock" has a light, breezy tone that is entertaining as far as it goes, with a lot of spot-on details. The gridlocked highway to the festival looks like a '60s counter-cultural version of the N.C. State Fair midway, with Martin hitching a ride from a motorcycle cop with a flower in his helmet. As Lang, Jonathan Groff perfectly balances sunshiny good vibes and snake oil. Eugene Levy's cameo as Yasgur is quite entertaining (although not showing how he reacted to his farm's being turned into a muddy quagmire counts as a missed opportunity). And Danny Elfman's instrumental score captures the era's psychedelic feel, even without Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Woodstock's other performers being heard from directly.
Martin is likable enough onscreen. But he's in virtually every scene, and he's the least-interesting character in each and every one. On the one hand, that does give "Taking Woodstock" a sense of relatability, with Martin as a bewildered everyman in the grip of monumental forces beyond his control. On the other, more of an edge would have served the film well.
When portraying Elliot's frustration at the festival's insane logistics, Martin is fine. He also shows real acting aplomb in portraying an acid trip, conveying a rapid journey from tension to acceptance to ecstasy just from a few eye movements and body language.
But he's less compelling in portraying Elliot's coming-out as a gay man, which is a major theme of the film. Compassionate and thoughtful, Lee handles that with the taste and restraint you'd expect from the director of "Brokeback Mountain." And yes, there's a kissing scene, although Martin comes across as flat and unconvincing.
Ultimately, "Taking Woodstock" feels a bit unfocused, a tale in which Elliot's story gets lost in a huge sea of details. Kind of like Woodstock itself.