“If you remember Woodstock, you probably weren’t there,” the expression goes. And if you were, can you please stop gassing on about it? Aquarian Nostalgia is the most oppressively sanctimonious and dull stripe of reminiscing. Sure, the three free days of peace and music at Max Yasgur’s farm passed without violent incident, but almost the second Jimi Hendrix put his guitar down after playing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the marketplace for boomer sentimental journeys sprang up. Though the fact that Michael Lang, one of the rock show’s original four organizers, canceled Woodstock’s 40th-anniversary concert because of a lack of corporate sponsorship suggests that ’60s narcissism may finally be coming to an end, Ang Lee’s facile Taking Woodstock proves that the decade is still prone to the laziest wide-eyed oversimplifications.
To its credit, Taking Woodstock — based on Elliot Tiber’s 2007 memoir, Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert, and a Life, and adapted by Lee’s frequent collaborator, James Schamus — features no actors pantomiming Janis Joplin, Ravi Shankar or Sha-Na-Na; in fact, little music from the concert itself is heard. On display instead are inane, occasionally borderline-offensive portrayals of Jews, performance artists, trannies, Vietnam vets, squares and freaks.
Though his age is never mentioned in the film, the real-life Elliot (whose surname is Teichberg in Lee’s movie, and who is played by Demetri Martin) was 34 during the summer of ’69. According to his memoir, Tiber was present at another sacrosanct revolution two months earlier: Stonewall. Elliot’s gayness becomes Lee’s tenuous overarching theme, awkwardly shoehorned in; Elliot and a butch construction worker he later makes out with meet-cute over a Judy Garland record. But Elliot’s Uranian tendencies must be kept hidden from his Jewish-émigré parents, Jake and Sonia (Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton, the latter of whom is seen passed out on a pile of cash, clutching tens and twenties), who run El Monaco, a decrepit motel in upstate Bethel. The good, closeted budding-entrepreneur son leaves Manhattan to help them, and, after reading that neighboring Wallkill says no to hosting a bunch of longhairs grooving out to some hard rock, sets the wheels in motion for Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) and associates to have the concert in his Catskills hamlet.
Beyond Elliot’s marginally interesting homo conflict — he’s given a push to come out by Liev Schreiber’s ridiculous drag queen, Vilma, who shows up to provide security — Taking Woodstock does nothing more than recycle the same late-’60s tropes seen countless times since the Carter administration. The rages and flashbacks of Emile Hirsch’s fried Vietnam vet are the usual PTSD overacting. The Earthlight Players, a performance troupe that lives in the barn next to El Monaco (“Some are Vassar graduates,” Elliot explains), are as dumb a depiction of avant-garde thespians as something that Jesse Helms might have concocted. On his way to the concert, uptight Elliot takes acid and sees the truth; back at the motel, perpetually miserable Jake and Sonia unknowingly scarf down pot brownies and frolic in the rain; father and son form a deep posthigh bond the next day. Eat, drink, man, woman. Making his way through the political booths at Woodstock, Elliot sees women burning their bras at the United Feminist Front area — a practice debunked years earlier, thus making it all the more irresistible to Schamus and Lee, apparently.
Near the film’s end, there’s an allusion to Altamont, the free Rolling Stones concert in December 1969 that would become the anti-Woodstock, but no mention of an even bloodier event that had occurred just the week before 500,000 kids gathered to hear Richie Havens: the Tate-LaBianca murders. Taking Woodstock is a film for those who like children’s stories about tumultuous times. Everyone else can pick up Joan Didion’s The White Album.
TAKING WOODSTOCK | Directed by ANG LEE | Written by JAMES SCHAMUS | Produced by SCHAMUS, LEE and CELIA COSTAS | Focus Features | ArcLight Hollywood