Taking Woodstock isn't a bad picture, but it sure isn't as good as you want it to be. The director is Ang Lee and the screenwriter is James Schamus; they've proven one of the most fruitful director/writer collaborations of modern cinema (Schamus wrote or co-wrote all of Lee's features to date, save for Sense and Sensibility), but this time, something is just a little off. The exposition is surprisingly clumsy (particularly the early scenes with the banker and with the sister), and there's a strange, listless quality to its early sequences. It's not that it doesn't play--it's just that you keep waiting for it to catch fire.
The film tells the true story of Elliot Tiber (stand-up comic Demetri Martin), a would-be artist and designer slumming it in his parents' ramshackle Catskills resort. He then hears that a neighboring town has pulled the permit for the upcoming Woodstock music festival, and offers up an alternate location--providing a permit, a nearby farm, and, of course, accommodations. In doing so, he ends up with a front-row seat as the festival spins out of control and away from expectations, and becomes the event that defines his generation.
All of that is well and good, and once the hippies start showing up and the festival gets into full swing, there's a lot of Taking Woodstock to like. But boy does it take some time to get going. The first half of the film is downright rudderless, meandering oddly from scene to scene, and the punch lines don't quite land; the picture is being marketed as a comedy, but Lee's timing isn't quite right. And as much as I like Martin, he just may not be leading man material--he's a little too bemused, too low-key and low-energy, to really carry a movie.
I can see why Lee cast him; in the second half, Martin does a fine job of projecting the quality of an innocent drinking it all in (a concept that works from the viewpoint of boilerplate narrative, though his naiveté seems somewhat at odds with the character's bohemian past). The second act's uptick also owes a great deal to the presence of a be-dragged Liev Schreiber, who waltzes in around the halfway mark and all but steals the picture. Eugene Levy is also quite good as likable but practical Max Yasgur, and Dan Fogler is actually tolerable (a first for him), though Emile Hirsch fails to make much of an impression in his one-note role.
There's a wonderful moment when Ritchie Havens' voice floats over from Yasgur's Farm, and Elliot smiles and says, "It's starting." The film's sound design is inventive; once the concert begins, we hear distant but recognizable performances, always off-screen, but present and lending context and atmosphere. In fact, Taking Woodstock is near-perfect, technically; the editing frequently apes the split-screen cutting of the Woodstock documentary, while Eric Gautier's cinematography is so spot-on, you'd swear they grabbed some outtakes from the original doc. And it has one truly magnificent shot, which tracks with Elliot as he moves slowly through the various festivalgoers and observers.
But even once the narrative takes off, the script keeps letting us down; the business with the hash brownies (seen in the trailers) is a lazy, easy laugh, and the dialogue in Elliot's last scene with his father is so trite and cliché, you can sit in the audience and write it yourself. Schamus is a better writer than that, and Lee is a director who can usually put a more original spin on a scene than that.
From the opening images of the green grass and forests surrounding the El Monoco Motel, the anamorphic 1.85:1 frame is filled with the bright, vivid colors expected from a tale of the Summer of Love. It's not quite as candy-coated as you might expect, though; cinematographer Gautier also gives the film a slightly aged look that washes it out slightly, if not to a fault. Elliot's first acid trip, on the other hand, is no holds barred--the bright, high-contrast imagery is nicely rendered and, well, trippy. Black levels are good and skin tones are faithfully reproduced, with no bothersome artifacts detectable.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital track is alive and active with period music and well-placed environmental sounds. The moment when the sounds of Havens come rolling over the pond is nicely placed in the back of the soundstage, while the music of the acid trip pans psychedelically. The only real disappointment is the lack of separation in the motel bar scenes, which are surprisingly front-and-center.
Spanish and French language options are also available, as are English SHD, Spanish, and French subtitles.
Not much effort exerted here. The three Deleted Scenes (6:52 total) are brief but enjoyable, while the "Peace, Love, and Cinema" featurette (19:22) nicely combines behind-the-scenes information about the film with reflections on Woodstock itself; it features interviews with not only cast and crew, but the real people they're playing. Director Lee and writer/co-producer Schamus also contribute a good-humored Audio Commentary, energetic and articulate (of particular interest is Lee's discussion of how he got to this point in his career, calling his earlier Ice Storm "the hangover of Woodstock").
Focus Features inexplicably released Taking Woodstock two weeks after the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock festival, when all of the retrospective news coverage--and therefore free publicity--had faded. Critics were indifferent, and audiences mostly stayed away. Given a second look on DVD, the picture is still worth seeing, and there is much in it to recommend. But it's ultimately passable rather than exceptional, and from Lee and Schamus, that's a letdown.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.