*Taking Woodstock (R)
Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Kimball's Peak Three, Tinseltown
Though Ang Lee came to the U.S. more than 30 years ago and began his filmmaking career with stories about people who, like him, were Taiwanese or Taiwanese-American, he gradually migrated to distinctly American tales. More specifically, his films began to address American ideas that had come to be mythologized: the swinging '70s (The Ice Storm); the Civil War (Ride with the Devil); the taciturn West (Brokeback Mountain). Even his much-criticized Hulk was a take on an American myth.
Taking Woodstock, in that context, falls squarely within Lee's sweet spot. This may not be a look at the Woodstock that was, but it's fairly charming as a look at the Woodstock that we wish it had been.
Lee and screenwriter James Schamus adapt the memoir by Elliot Tiber and Tom Monte, following young Elliot (Demetri Martin) through the summer of 1969. A struggling interior designer, he spends his time trying to keep afloat the crumbling Catskills motel run by his mother (Imelda Staunton) and father (Henry Goodman). Elliot uses his role as president of the local chamber of commerce to lure a festival kicked out by neighboring towns. After all, it's just going to be three days of peace, love and music. What could go wrong?
The film's first half takes a mostly farcical course. Lee and Schamus effectively establish the town's pokey rhythms — including a goofy chamber meeting focused on odd minutiae. Staunton gets a great scene arguing with the bank manager over extending their loan, and Eugene Levy has hilarious moments as dairy farmer Max Yasgur, most notably when he plays hardball with Woodstock organizers while serving up chocolate milk. As a purely comedic take on culture clash, Taking Woodstock is thoroughly satisfying.
Eventually, of course, it has other thematic fish to fry. As festival preparations proceed, we learn more about Elliot, who seems to have sacrificed not only cash and career for his parents' sake, but his sexual identity. Elliot's growing need to live openly comes into focus through Woodstock — which makes it hard not to wish for a more dynamic, experienced actor. Martin has a shaggy appeal when dealing with lighter material, but when he's asked to pull off serious expressions of internal conflict, he's not quite up to the task.
It's fortunate, then, that most of Taking Woodstock allows Elliot to serve as a surrogate for the audience's experience of those three muddy, insane days. Lee captures the event's scope by turning the stage into little more than a rumor for most attendees, and following the staggering human parade making its way to the festival grounds. While the narrative touches on logistical nightmares — disposing of human waste for half a million people; avoiding electrocution during downpours — mostly it's a chance to marvel at how much went right in this impromptu utopian community.
Lee may romanticize Woodstock — his visual interpretation of an LSD trip basically turns the world into a Van Gogh painting — but he also recognizes how short-lived this dream was. He ends the film not just on a shot of people gathering the garbage left behind, but with an oblique reference to the upcoming — and ultimately tragedy-marred — music festival at Altamont.
The blissed-out Woodstock vision may not have lasted, but Taking Woodstock suggests that at least for a few days, it was real. And even if that point of view is a myth, it's a tremendously appealing one.