Looking to tap into the buoyant mood as America celebrates the 40th anniversary of the music festival of music festivals, “Taking Woodstock” transports the viewer not to the center of the muddy hippie hullabaloo, but a few weeks earlier. An origin story of sorts, Ang Lee’s summery film is a hodgepodge of legendary sights and sounds, and for an hour it plays fresh and stimulating. But only for an hour.
Helping his mother (Imelda Staunton) and father (Henry Goodman) out with their dilapidated motel located in Bethel, New York, Elliot (Demetri Martin) has neglected his own life to keep the family’s investment afloat. Hearing of a rock festival having trouble finding a suitable venue, Elliot contacts Woodstock organizer Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff), urging him to come out to the remote area and see the potential. What Lang finds is the sprawling farmland of Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy). Commencing ticket sales and lodging bookings, the Woodstock concert takes Bethel by storm, leaving Elliot as the hesitant intermediary between the disgruntled locals and the lucrative hippie invasion.
It’s an appealing idea for a film, based on Elliot Tiber’s autobiography. So much has already been written and filmed when it comes to Woodstock, but the ramp-up to the actual cosmic event has always floated across as an afterthought, an unglamorous prelude of panic before the soothing sounds of the rock gods took over the landscape and branded pop culture with their extraordinary “3 Days of Peace & Music.”
“Taking” offers Lee a juicy opportunity for investigation and dramatization, returning to American shores after working up a sweat with his 2007 Asian NC-17 thriller, “Lust, Caution.” Lee appears to take the retro material as a vacation, presenting a warm, soft cinematographic glow (courtesy of Eric Gautier) to witness the birth of Woodstock and having terrific fun highlighting the juxtaposition of carefree (though highly funded) hippie ways and the aggravated locals, with the exception of Yasgur, a dairy farmer who made it his priority to milk Lang for all possible compensation. Elliot’s anxiety, ambition, and the makeshift Woodstock preparations eat up a nearly the entire first half, engaging Lee’s gift with actors and ability to craft sharp moments of domestic discord. Lee’s interest in the mechanics of the era almost comes across as gleeful, finding minutiae to savor as Elliot instigates the concert that would change the country for one allegedly beautiful moment.
Once Woodstock takes over, “Taking” ditches its drive. It becomes all too eager to give in to the chemical haze of the event, not to mention the sexual freedom primed for explosion. Lee loses control and heart, and the film starts submitting jagged edges for subplots, mistaking caricature for profundity. A big question mark is Elliot’s homosexuality, which is served up as a major profession of self in the picture, but Lee fumbles its purpose, making the character’s sexuality a cliché that slows the film further. There’s a whole platter of soulful inspection going on in the second half of “Taking,” but nothing’s offered too fine a point. Lee also breaks the illusion by visiting the concert (though no footage is used) with an extended LSD sequence (co-starring Paul Dano and Kelli Garner), hitting notes of fogged rebellion we’ve all seen a million times over.
“Taking Woodstock” drags to its conclusion, parading some traditional oddity (Liev Schreiber as Elliot’s cross-dressing head of security, Emile Hirsch as a patchy bearded Vietnam vet prone to outbursts and boozing) that doesn’t connect to the earlier tones of personal discontent, further aggravated by a last-minute financial revelation from one of the characters that attaches more needless weight. I wish “Taking Woodstock” never bothered with the concert, as the drive to make sure Elliot’s heart finds its purpose is a distraction that steals Lee’s concentration, leaving the film in the same condition as the real Woodstock: muddy, scattered, and overlong.