Review by Jack Foley
FOR Ang Lee, Taking Woodstock is as much about self re-discovery as it is about a coming-of-age for the characters it depicts.
Having become entrenched in tales of tragedy and deception (Brokeback Mountain/Lust, Caution) the director felt he needed to rediscover his lighter side. Hence, on the 40th anniversary of Woodstock he decided to make a film about that seminal music festival and to explore the theme of innocence.
The result is a curiously underwhelming movie that seems to exist in its own perpetual haze.
An intimate family tale rather than anything more culturally significant, it’s a strange move for Lee and writer James Schamus that hits one too many duff notes.
The film follows Elliot Teichberg (played by newcomer Demetri Martin), an interior designer from New York City who finds himself spending too much time attempting to revive the fortunes of his mother and father (Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman)‘s rundown motel.
When he hears that a music festival near his parents’ Catskill motel has lost its licence, he calls Woodstock Ventures and opens up White Lake and its reluctant inhabitants to one of the biggest music events in American [and global] music history.
Lee’s film isn’t so much interested in the machinations of creating Woodstock and its subsequent success as it is the coming-of-age of its central character, who discovers his place in the world and sexual identity along the way.
But while there’s essentially no problem with this, the film fails to engage on that all-important emotional level.
There are good performances and some fine sequences, including a moment where Elliot is escorted via police motorbike through thousands of Woodstock revellers.
But the film doesn’t really hang together as well as it should. It meanders… it’s humour is sometimes painfully unfunny (Staunton’s Jewish jibes in particular) and its leading man lacks the charisma required to make his journey really engaging.
Woodstock takes a back-seat when it could have benefited from being a little more centre-stage, while there are one too many obscure characters.
Emile Hirsch, in particular, fails to make the most of his traumatised Vietnam vet, caught out by the indelicate balance of humour and drama, while Staunton appears to be doing her best Nora Batty impression, and the likes of Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Eugene Levy (playing it straight) are under-used.
Henry Goodman does, at least, stand out as Elliot’s long-suffering father and gets some nice moments with his son late on, while Liev Schreiber excels as a transvestite security presence.
But for a director of Lee’s talent, this is a curiously laboured effort that fails to do justice to its subject matter or cast. It seems he’s far better dealing with tragedy after all.
Running time: 120mins
UK DVD & Blu-ray Release: March 8, 2010