- Rated R
- Buy the Blu-ray
All photos © Focus Features
Reviewed by David Medsker
aking Woodstock” wants to have it both ways, trumpeting the central character’s efforts to save Woodstock while serving as a coming-of-age movie at the same time. The problem is that the former works a lot better than the latter, and director Ang Lee has trouble pushing both story lines along at the same time, resulting in a rather limp finish.
The story begins in the summer of 1969, and Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin) has left his job in New York City to move back to upstate White Lake in order to help his parents manage their struggling hotel. Elliot is also president of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce and owns the town’s only music permit. He plans on having a string quartet play his annual music festival (it usually consists of Elliot playing records though a PA system), but Elliot reconsiders when he discovers that the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, originally set to take place in nearby Wallkill, lost their music permit due to pressure from the local townspeople. Elliot offers his music permit to Woodstock organizer Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff), and once a quick glance of the Teichberg land renders it unusable, Elliot introduces Michael to nearby farmer Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy). Once the festival is a go, Elliot must deal with the fallout, both professional (he instantly becomes the town pariah) and personal (his already stingy mother goes mad with greed).
If this hadn’t been a true story, and not just any true story but one centered around the mother of all Boomer events, there is a good chance this movie doesn’t get made. Take Woodstock out of the equation, and you’re left with a premise that is all too familiar, the ordinary person who does something extraordinary. To make matters worse Elliot, despite a steady-Eddie performance by stand-up comedian Demetri Martin, is one of the least interesting characters in the movie. When the entire third act focuses on Elliot’s spiritual awakening (it also hints at his sexual awakening), the movie screeches to a halt.
Which is a pity, because the first half is quite entertaining. Imelda Staunton is a stitch as Elliot’s shrew of a mother, and the Earthlight Players, a local theater troupe (led by Dan Fogler) that lives in the Teichberg’s barn, do a very good impression of bad hippie theater. Watching Michael Lang use the hotel as Woodstock HQ is amusing, since it shows that even the supposedly pure Woodstock festival had lawyers and corporate machinery behind it. And then there is Liev Schrieber, who waltzes in about halfway through the movie and steals it from everyone. To reveal anything about his character would spoil the fun.
Even when the more colorful characters play a larger role in “Taking Woodstock,” though, the movie is not content to let them run the show. Lee adds and just as quickly abandons subplots involving racism (the townsfolk practically become Klansmen overnight) and organized crime, while Emile Hirsch’s traumatized Vietnam vet Billy feels like a relic from a bygone era in film. For many of the movie’s characters, the moral is that you can never go home again, but “Taking Woodstock” doesn’t seem to realize that its very existence contradicts its message.
Single-Disc Blu-Ray Review:
Focus keeps things simple for the $7 million-grossing "Taking Woodstock," adding seven minutes of deleted scenes, a 20-minute featurette on the making of the movie, and an audio commentary by director Ang Lee and writer James Schamus. The Blu-ray release also includes three more additional deleted scenes and a short featurette on the Earthlight Players. Our favorite bit is listening to Imelda Staunton laughing about Liev Schrieber being dressed as "a big girl."