Taking Woodstock aims for the unreachable
Based on the trailer for Taking Woodstock, you might think it’s a comedy. Casting Demetri Martin as the lead might cement this assumption. The film may also seem like an epic biographical piece set to revolutionize the genre of setting films during the “Woodstock Era”. But, in reality, Taking Woodstock isn’t exactly either of those things. Ang Lee and James Schamus’ attempt to conceptualize the memoir “Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert, and a Life” wasn’t a total success; nor total failure.
Elliot Tiber (Martin) is responsible for making Woodstock happen for the world. He is forced to give up his comfort and return back to Bethel, New York where his very Jewish parents Sonia and Jack Teichberg (Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman) are drowning in debt with their motel, El Monaco. After hearing the Woodstock Music Festival was “killed by Wallkill,” Elliot – as the acting leader of the town’s chamber of commerce – decides to take matters into his own hands by issuing a permit to Michael Lang’s (Jonathan Groff) Woodstock Ventures. With the permit and the rooms all bought by Woodstock Ventures, the three days of peace and music begins. The film is not without an antagonist. Elliot faces death threats, racial slurs, and building violations that stand in the way of his true happiness.
With the help of his local and new friends Devon (Dan Fogler), Billy (Emile Hirsch), and Vilma (Liev Schreiber,) Elliot finds himself amidst (unbeknownst to him) the greatest music, people, and scene of a century. This era of American history is very hard to encapsulate on a set, let alone on a silver screen. As you watch the movie, you get the sense that you are only “observing” and not “taking” Woodstock.
Because this is a biopic, you eventually accept that Elliot will be your capsule. Martin did command the screen for 2/3rds of the film, an accomplishment considering this is his first leading role, but at times it just felt unreal and a bit forced. One scene where Martin is crying over the beauty of the “sea of people” while he is tripping off of LSD seemed like it should have been more epic.
Hirsch’s role as Billy, an ex-Vietnam grunt, was under performed. It seems that the guidance of certain directors brings the best out of everyone. If there were any captivating performances in this film they were from Stauton and Goodman playing Elliot’s parents. While most performances weren’t captivating, there were many shots that were interestingly beautiful and engaging.
The LSD trip was interesting in the sense that the colors, setting, and place worked to transfix your eyes to something surreal. Also, there is a scene where Elliot and Billy mudslide down the hill and a camera is following each person at a side angle both behind and in front of the crowd. There are many incoherent pieces throughout this movie and the viewer will forcibly make something of their own. An art-film, bio-pic, music-doc, dramatic-comedy, etc.; all of these arrows are flying at you and whichever one hits you will be the movie you saw. Taking Woodstock isn’t terrible, its true aim is to use Martin as a vessel that takes you on a journey through the sea of characters Elliot has met in real life, while Lee aims to define every aspect of a time that itself is indefinable.