Does Ang Lee's 1969 nostalgia trip come to bury Woodstock or to praise it?
Ang Lee's counterculture curiosity is a hedge-bet failure. Wanting to pimp the sanctified view of the 1960s flower-power peak while pricking it with the smallest critical stick, it assumes where it should explicate and--while out of either laziness, Boomer arrogance, or hipster calculation--assumes we already know the '60s mythos chapter and verse, a pose that makes the movie's existence literally pointless.
Timed to profit from Woodstock's 40th anniversary and the dimming hopes of the Obama wave, Lee's movie claims the power of the everyman to change everything. In this case, he's Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin), a quietly queer guy living in the Catskills with his father (Henry Goodman) and Holocaust survivor mother (Imelda Staunton) whose PTSD symptoms are the movie's somewhat questionable go-to source for laughs.
When not running the failing family motel or heading the town commerce committee, Elliot pops over to New York City, where he doesn't bother to get laid. (He later turns down a chance to go to San Francisco where some sort of gay thing seems to be happening.) Putting aside the fact that this is based on the real-life Elliot Tiber's own account of events--as filtered through James Schamus' script--I can only guess that Elliot's repressed queerness is meant to stand in for the general repression against which the counterculture was countering. But again, I'm only guessing.
Anyway--just as Elliot's family faces bankruptcy, a helicopter lands in his backyard and out struts Michael (Jonathan Groff), a laid back hippie-hustler with a proposition. The proposition is, of course, that Elliot work as middleman to convince nearby farm owner Max (Eugene Levy) to rent his meadow to a festival of "three days of peace and music" that will make everyone a shitload of money. When a stoned Elliot babbles to the press that the event will be free, the town and meadow is quickly glutted with hippies, eventually peaking out at half a million souls.
And so Woodstock becomes a sort of road movie without roads as Elliot wanders through the muck and stoned masses in search of that holy grail of a main stage where the likes of the Grateful Dead, the Who, and Jimi Hendrix play. And so we suffer a mind-numbing hour of CGI acid trips, sexual trysts, and Terrence Malick-y eco-spiritual epiphanies, before Elliot, family, and friends limp to their last-reel reconciliations. Elliot even gets to fuck a construction worker, although this is shown with even more brevity--which could be read as distaste--than the frantic couplings of Brokeback Mountain.
There are small pleasures. Liev Schreiber has an infectiously good time playing Vilma, a cocky, cross-dressing Korean War vet given the job of handling festival security. And Martin, whose post-slacker stand-up routine is unendurably smug, crafts a weirdly beguiling nowhere man.
But constantly grating is the way Lee seems perpetually on the verge of critical gestures that would explode the gilded view of Woodstock as yet another one of America's last moments of innocence. Constant reminders of the moral ruin of Vietnam and intimations of Mutually Assured Destruction suggest contextualizing explanations for why a mostly white, young, middle class opted out in favor of an impossible dream world of dumbing drugs, free love, and the like.
Had Lee really worked this angle, the hippies on view could have attained some tragically fated weight. Instead, they're just, well, hippies, to the modern eye painfully naive hobbit-y folk who love nothing more than a bong hit and nude frolic in the mud. And either out of mercy or because he knows Michael Wadleigh already made the defining Woodstock overview with his 1970 documentary, Lee mostly leaves out the one thing inarguably great about Woodstock, its music.
The movie ends with vague storm warnings of Altamont while assuming you know what Altamont was about. More interestingly, and as if in sharp rejoinder to the hippies' repeated claims to responsibility, is a last lingering wide shot of the meadow left littered with garbage.
Is Lee suggesting that the flip side of the most entitled generation's solipsism is a literal mess and Taking Woodstock a prequel to Lee's Me Generation movie, 1997's The Ice Storm? Or does the director assume as long as he feeds the Woodstock nostalgia machine, nobody will note these critical road bumps, all while keeping his detached cinematic cred? Both readings work, even if Lee's movie doesn't.