With at least half a million valid Woodstock experiences to draw from, you’d think Ang Lee’s latest film Taking Woodstock would feature some material from the historic music festival. Instead, Lee takes a different route and presents a likable, bittersweet comedy of real-life entrepreneur Elliot Teichberg’s experiences before and during the music festival. Don’t let the title fool you; for a movie set in the “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” age of the late 1960s, there’s surprisingly very little of all three. But Lee’s film still manages to impress by creating an intricate story of personal growth and life changes. Unfortunately, the movie falls flat almost as often as it inspires the audience.
Based on Teichberg’s memoir of the same title, Taking Woodstock is more about the struggles Elliot (played by Demetri Martin) and his family endure as their motel faces foreclosure unless he can find a way to save the family business. I can’t think of a better way to earn money than throw the nation’s most memorable rock concert in history.
But that’s only the surface of Elliot’s problems. As an uncomfortable, closeted gay man in the ‘60s, Elliot’s real challenge is reconciling his relationship with his parents (played by Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton). It’s a task that’s much easier said than done, and certainly much easier than conveying that message on screen.
While Lee’s decision to exclude any footage of the concert is a letdown for some, the film still manages to create a surprisingly accurate portrait of the time with a plot that seems to focus solely on Elliot. However, many portions of the film are riddled with dizzying split screen effects that feature multiple minor characters at once, making it impossible to follow anything that’s going on.
That being said, I almost wish the minor characters had a larger role in the film. One thing that can be said of Taking Woodstock, it is not lacking in unique and memorable characters, including the burly cross dresser and security guard, Vilma (Liev Schreiber), the shell-shocked Vietnam veteran (Emile Hirsch), and even Teichberg’s mother, who has an interesting relationship with her secret stash of money.
But just as the split screens feel sudden, forced, and end without explanation, so do the characters’ motives, leaving the audience wishing for more of a follow-through. Instead of delving into the relationships between Elliot and his peers, the film stays completely focused on him and takes a down turn because of it.
Furthermore, because the film fails to develop any characters worth investing in, the story lags through many parts, leaving me completely disappointed by its closing.
Taking Woodstock is certainly admirable for its stunningly accurate portrayal of the ‘60s, and its honest attempt at presenting likable characters should be commended. However, the film fails to fulfill the audience’s expectations by leaving us in the same condition as we started: Without much understanding or memory of what transpired—not so different from the actual Woodstock festival, I’m sure.