Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock takes advantage of yet another anniversary celebration of the three-day music festival that defined a generation, but Lee only uses the milestone for surface draw. Otherwise, this aimless, pointless, emotionless and self-aggrandizing debacle would have no legitimate reason to exist.
It's not like we haven't seen mountains of incredible real footage of the mud-covered hippie love-in already: the Scorsese-assisted, Oscar-winning doc Woodstock; Barbara Kopple's recently released Woodstock: Now and Then; not to mention several discs devoted to individual performances at the concert. Lee figures he has a new angle with which to approach the event, which by now is so overexposed it's become plain boring: the true story of Bethel, N.Y., innkeeper Elliot Tiber, a young gay Jewish kid whom the local old folks adored and who had the ability to issue his own concert permits, a minuscule fact that meant everything in bringing the Woodstock festival to life.
The film follows Tiber (played in grating monotone by Demetri Martin) as he takes over the planning of the event, until it turns the tables and takes over his life.
Director Lee uses the cutesy tale as a canvas on which to paint his own (and his perennial screenwriter James Schamus') inflated sense of awe and reverence for the historical moment. Not only do we see how the festival brought Tiber out of his parental-control funk and closeted shame over his homosexuality, but also how it magically changed the minds of some cops who 'came here to club some hippiesâ?� but ended up flashing peace signs, and how the concert stage was the literal 'center of the universe, man.â?� Important? Yes. But as Tiber himself admits in the film, 'It's all about commerce.â?�
That much I'll give to Lee: He doesn't shy away from the money factor. Even the rock-star investors touting it as a peace-and-love moment tell Tiber, 'It's 'real' as long as the money's 'real.'â?� One of the more idealistic moneymen, after it's all over, reflects, 'We'll all probably sue each other now, but it's cool.â?�
But that doesn't excuse the self-referential, winking nature of the whole excruciating endeavor. Once the actual concert begins, the movie is over, but Lee bafflingly decides that Richie Havens' opening chords are his halfway mark, not the climax. For the rest of the overly plotted fiasco, we're kept far away from the music onstage and, thus, at a distance from genuine significance. Sure, we see Tiber indulging in acid tabs, casual sex and guidance from a gun-toting, advice-giving, cross-dressing muscleman (Liev Schreiber) ' all carrying the guise of stereotype ' but it's all been done before. It will be done again, probably badly, in 10 years when Woodstock turns 50, an age most boomers said goodbye to already.