Apparently determined to tackle every cinematic genre known to man, Ang Lee has thus far given us his take on the popular-lit adaptation (“Eat Drink Man Woman”), the classic-lit adaptation (“Sense and Sensibility”), the Civil War western (“Ride With the Devil”), the wuxia action flick (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), the Marvel comic-book summer tentpole (“Hulk”), the WWII espionage thriller (“Lust, Caution”) and, of course, the gay cowboy weepie (“Brokeback Mountain”).
It was inevitable, I suppose, that he would eventually get around to the historical docudrama — or, as I’ve recently dubbed that generally useless collection of bullet-point factoids, the Wiki-movie. Technically, “Taking Woodstock” was adapted from key organizer Elliot Tiber’s memoir of the same title; with the exception of some laborious anecdotes involving Tiber’s Russian immigrant parents, however, you can find pretty much every detail of the movie in Wikipedia’s tidy entry on the fabled concert, assuming that you don’t know most of that stuff already. If this film winds up being all that remains after a nuclear holocaust, it’ll be a valuable document. Otherwise, zzz.
A big part of the problem is that Tiber, played here by “Daily Show” correspondent Demetri Martin, didn’t really do much of anything — certainly nothing that required extensive dramatization. He was a civic-minded young music lover who, when he heard that a proposed extravaganza featuring many of his favorite bands was on the verge of being canceled for lack of a venue, used his position on the Bethel, NY city council to wrangle the necessary permit, originally intended for a concert of chamber music. He also put the promoters in touch with nearby dairy farmer Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy), who rented out 600 acres for the event. Tiber’s family ran a cruddy little motel, which the Woodstock staff booked in toto; Tiber therefore had to run around changing the sheets and creating smaller mini-rooms (using dividers) to handle the overflow.
Sound scintillating? If it’s a recreation of Woodstock itself you seek, forget it — like Tiber, we see the stage only from a faraway hilltop, at a distance so great that the music isn’t even audible. And there just isn’t anything even marginally interesting about the behind-the-scenes machinations of one two-bit hustler. Martin plays Tiber as an amiable nebbish, practically devoid of personality; it barely registers when he comes out of the closet towards the end of the movie, inspired by the liberation he sees all around him, as the character hadn’t been anything more than a generic plot motor prior to this emotional epiphany. To keep the film from flatlining, Lee and his regular screenwriter, James Schamus, are forced to resort to goofy, mostly unfunny comedy, courtesy of Imelda Staunton as Tiber’s outrageously greedy/stingy mom and Liev Schreiber as a hulking transvestite with a pistol strapped to his upper thigh, who volunteers to be head of security.
Mostly, though, the experience of watching “Taking Woodstock” — at least for anyone not recently attached to a placenta — amounts to ticking off items from a checklist of “well, duh” expectations. You sit there waiting for the roads into Bethel to be jammed by barefoot hippies, for heavy rains to turn Yasgur’s field into a giant mud pit and, inevitably, for Lee to employ the same split-screen effect that Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker used when editing Michael Wadleigh’s documentary “Woodstock.”
It’s the kind of movie in which you know the acid just kicked in because the background suddenly goes all smeary-psychedelic; the kind of movie in which you’re prompted to chortle with retroactive knowingness at a promoter’s assurance that an upcoming Rolling Stones show will surely be a nonstop groovy lovefest. (Get it? Altamont!) It’s Ang Lee’s lamest movie ever, but at least he has it out of the way now. Bring on the musical.