WOODSTOCK DONE DULL
> TAKE ON THE ‘WORLD-CHANGING’ MUSIC FEST GOES PERSONAL, FLAT
IF YOU’VE EVER LAMENTED not being present (or alive) in 1969 for the “Aquarian Exposition” that Rolling Stone magazine recently labeled “the greatest rock festival ever and the decade’s most famous and successful experiment in peace and community,” “Taking Woodstock” will ease your sorrow.
The new film from versatile director Ang Lee (“Brokeback Mountain,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Sense and Sensibility”) makes the Woodstock celebration seem about as thrilling as trudging between the Budweiser and Cellular South stages during the Beale Street Music Festival. (As anyone who’s been to Tom Lee Park in May knows, you don’t have to go to the Catskills to slide in the mud.) Even dropping acid in a VW bug with Paul Dano — the weirdo boy evangelist from “There Will Be Blood” — seems no more transformational than having one too many at the Lamplighter.
Perhaps this criticism is unfair. “Taking Woodstock” isn’t about the gathering itself — already definitively chronicled in the Oscar-winning 1970 documentary, “Woodstock” — but about the preparation, the buildup and, specifically, the role played during the festival by the comically eccentric (according to the film) residents of upstate New York, who had no clue they were opening their farms and villages to a hippie army “half a million strong,” to quote the Joni Mitchell song that forever romanticized the event (“We are stardust/ We are golden”).
Adapted by screenwriter James Schamus from Elliott Tiber’s 2007 autobiography, “Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert and a Life,” the movie’s focus is on a clean-cut and shy young painter named Elliott (Demetri Martin), whose possession of a music festival permit enables the organizers of the “Woodstock Music & Art Fair” to move their “3 Days of Peace & Music” to Bethel, N.Y., after the city fathers in Woodstock, N.Y., reject the hippie hoedown.
Elliott’s strident pogrom-escapee mother (a gruesome Imelda Staunton) and browbeaten schlemiel father (Henry Goodman) operate a flea pit motel that becomes festival headquarters. Neighbors object to the influx of “meshuga hairy barefoot (people)” and other oddballs (Liev Schreiber appears as a burly drag queen who straps a pistol to his inner thigh), but Elliott is inspired to not only escape his parents but to embrace his sexuality. (Our first real clue: He prefers Judy Garland to Jimi Hendrix.)
Released 40 years to the week after the allegedly seismic event, “Taking Woodstock” might have worked as an antic comedy or even a pretentious we-changed-the-world epic of generational braggadocio. (The freaked-out Vietnam veteran played by Emile Hirsch could have fit into either context.) Instead, Lee and Schamus use Woodstock as wallpaper for a hackneyed story of personal growth and reinvention.
The result may be Lee’s first dull film. It’s certainly his most predictable: Yes, we hear Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” as the spent festivalgoers make their exodus from Max Yasgur’s farm; and, yes, an end-of-the -movie conversation includes an ironic reference to the upcoming rock fest at Altamont.
Kelli Garner (from left), Demetri Martin and Paul Dano are three young people coming of age in the Age of Aquarius at Woodstock in 1969.