‘Taking Woodstock’ movie review: Ang Lee goes behind the scenes of the music festival

There’s a fascinating story in the behind-the-scenes of the Woodstock music festival, but Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock only tells about half of it. Maybe less. It’s a confused film that doesn’t quite know if it wants to tell the story of Woodstock or the story of its leading man, Eliot Tiber, who wrote the book on which the film is based. It ends up telling neither effectively, but there is a wealth of excellent material on hand.

In 1969, interior designer Eliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin) returns home from Greenwich Village to the small town of Bethel in the Catskills, to help out his mother (Imelda Staunton) and father (Henry Goodman) at their dilapidated motel, which the bank is about to foreclose on. Eliot is the president of the local chamber of commerce, which grants him a license for his annual music festival.

And then a funny thing happens: Eliot learns of the neighboring town of Wallkill’s rejection of a major music festival set to feature Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and others. So he calls the festival promoters – which include his onetime neighbor Michael Lang (Jonathon Groff) – and suggests they try Bethel. The swampland surrounding the family motel is no good, but the acres of farmland owned by Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy) will do just fine.

And while one side of the story focuses on the behind-the-scenes setup – what will soon become Woodstock, three days of peace, love, and music – another side of the story splinters off to focus on Eliot and his relationship with his parents. 

The whole movie has a light air, and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the drama that eventually unfolds; particularly surrounding Eliot’s mother, who had been used as comic relief throughout much of the early film. Given the screen time that Eliot’s personal story has during the film, it ultimately feels trite when stacked up against the surrounding events.

The film as a whole never quite gels, but in pieces it’s highly watchable and entirely enjoyable. During the second half, Lee and his crew recreate the madness surrounding Woodstock immaculately, making use of the same kind of split-screen effects used in Michael Wadleigh’s definitive 1970 documentary, Woodstock. Cinematography by Eric Gautier is exceptional, using the 1970 film as a springboard in recreating the time and place.

Most disappointing, however, is a total lack of concert footage, which could have either been reproduced or reused from Wadleigh’s documentary (they did one or the other with crowd footage, and they did it so effectively I’m not sure which). 

Yeah, it’s kind of the point that the actual concert is kept in the background, but it’s still a letdown to have such a lengthy build-up and then no payoff. On top of that, the music is mostly relegated to the background too – it’s there all right, but rarely front-and-center.

Previously, I’d only known Martin as a comedian (here’s one of my favorite routines), and I didn’t know what to expect from him in this role; he’s excellent, deadpanning his way through with an unusual and effective charm. 

Supporting cast is also a lot of fun, from Dan Fogler as the leader of a theater troupe, to Emile Hirsch as Eliot’s Vietnam veteran friend and Liev Schrieber as a transvestite guard.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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