Perhaps aiming to be the filmmaker with the most diverse catalog in history, Ang Lee has turned his sights onto the epic weekend music festival that occurred in upstate New York forty years ago. Lee’s “Taking Woodstock” is, gulp, a comedy, foreign territory for Lee in recent years. It features the unconventional marquee of The Daily Show‘s Demetri Martin, Eugene Levy, Imelda Staunton, and Emile Hirsch. Today, it gets a very small release, but opens wider Friday. The film is based on the memoir of Elliot Tiber (Martin), who, after hearing that the promoters for the Woodstock concert lost their permit, suggested that they come to his town to have the concert on the land of a local dairy farmer (Levy).
The Associated Press’s Christy Lemire sees the film as a misfire for Lee: “He approaches the fabled three-day concert from an outsider’s angle, which is admirably innovative; truly, the significance and influence of Woodstock have been chronicled ad nauseam, especially lately with its 40th anniversary having just passed. But in telling the story of the people who inadvertently launched the event, Lee leaves out the substance.” Anthony Lane, in the New Yorker, also blames the director: “Ang Lee is normally such an expert calibrator of performances—there wasn’t a weak link in “Brokeback Mountain”—that it’s a shock to find both overwhelmers and underwhelmers at loose in his latest work.”
indieWIRE‘s Eric Kohn is baffled. “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.” In Screen, Allan Hunter starts his review by saying, “‘Taking Woodstock’ is a sweet, meandering salute to the transformative power of three days of peace and music that took place in the summer of 1969. ” He concludes, however, “‘Taking Woodstock’ ultimately feels like a minor Ang Lee digression in between more memorable works.” Damon Wise in Empire, though is ecstatic about the film, calling it one of the best films to have its premiere in 2009. He also says, “What [Lee] has done here beats Cameron Crowe at his own game; it’s like a Wes Anderson movie with real people and real feelings, and, for me, it’s the first truly great movie to receive its world premiere in 2009.”
Earlier this month, a new Woodstock documentary aired on VH1 and History Channel. Barbara Koppel’s (“Harlan County U.S.A.,” “American Dream”) “Woodstock: Then & Now” does a retrospective look on the festival, including talking head interviews from the filmmakers of the seminal documentary on the festival, Michael Wadleigh’s “Woodstock.” Wadleigh’s film earned him the Oscar and gave Martin Scorsese one of his first high profile gigs. The new documentary gets a laudatory New York Times review, while the New Yorker‘s Nancy Franklin is positive but is not overly enthused.