This review was originally published as part of indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.
Considering the iconic event at its center, the most surprising aspect of “Taking Woodstock” lies with the decision to make it into a rather flat comedy. Even with the ever-versatile Ang Lee behind the camera, this messy historical fiction plays like a two hour “Saturday Night Live” sketch, and not a very good one, either.
Demetri Martin plays young aspiring designer Elliot Tiber, whose abrupt decision to lend his parents’ motel and music permit in Bethel, New York to the folks behind the Woodstock Music Festival solidified his role in the cultivation of twentieth century American counterculture. Although the movie culls from Tiber’s memoirs, it lacks any sense of authenticity. Instead, we get an uninspired, frustratingly simplistic depiction of both the event and the era as a whole.
With the youthful Tiber’s amiably soft-spoken persona in the foreground, “Taking Woodstock” theoretically had the potential to become a delightful coming-of-age story on the level of “Almost Famous.” Unfortunately, the pervasive superficiality of the performances and overly referential script rule that out from the very beginning. Martin’s stiff delivery might have worked if he was surrounded by an aura of credibility, but rest of the cast complicates the issue. Liev Schriever as a cross-dressing security manager? I hate to admit it, but he’s better in “Wolverine.” Imelda Staunton as a Tiber’s Yiddish-spouting mamele? Even Tovah Feldshuh would have been over the top. Paul Dano as a tripped-out hippy and Emile Hirsch as a wild Vietnam vet seem more like props than real people.
The eye-rolling quotient is high in this movie, but no higher than in the final scene, when Jonathan Groff — as head of the organization responsible for the event — strolls into the arena riding a white horse, gloriously announcing the next great moment in music history by hinting at the upcoming Altamont Free Concert. Sequel, anyone?
That moment works according to the same confounding logic of the movie’s opening: Staunton watches television reports of war in Israel before flipping the channel, where she conveniently discovers coverage of NASA’s plan to land on the moon. “Taking Woodstock” contains many such blatant nods to history, constantly stripping away the realism.
Lee’s direction never does much to enliven the proceedings, either. A split screen devise blatantly ripped from the classic “Woodstock” documentary just distracts from the action, and an acid sequence falls low in the pantheon of cinematic acid trips. Occasional archival footage pops up in expository sequences, which does little except provide a reminder that the real thing contained many more entertaining qualities than this undercooked project. Worst of all, “Taking Woodstock” remains on the sidelines of event, with only passing references to the actual music. That may pertain to the context of the story, but it sure would have helped if the movie contained a catchier soundtrack.