Bright idea having the indisputably great director Ang Lee take us back to the garden to find the grit, grace and innocence that marked the Woodstock Music Festival in Bethel, New York, 40 years ago this month. Not so bright having the script by the estimable James Schamus focus on the sexual coming-out of Elliot Tiber (Comedy Central’s Demetri Martin), whose failing family motel in the Catskills played a part in bringing the festival to fruition. How big a part? Festival producer Michael Lang, portrayed with crafty, angelic fervor by the gifted stage actor Jonathan Groff (Spring Awakening, Hair), claims there’s exaggeration, notably in Tiber’s connection to Max Yasgur (the always-welcome Eugene Levy), whose 600-acre dairy farm became the concert site.
For me, fact-fudging isn’t the problem. What matters is that Tiber, a closeted interior designer afraid to come out to his immigrant parents (Jewish stereotypes in the usually capable hands of Brit actors Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman), seems like the least compelling person around. I kept wanting to follow Liev Schreiber as a cross-dressing ex-Marine or Emile Hirsch as an agitated Vietnam vet.
It’s no strain to see what Lee is aiming for and only fitfully achieves: a sweet comedy of transformation in which the changes in Elliot mirror a cultural revolution. But all the tie-dye, reefer, skinny-dipping, split-screen cinematography (from Eric Gautier) and acid-trip psychedelics courtesy of Tiber’s encounter with hippies (Paul Dano and Kelli Garner) can’t make up for the film’s major sin of omission: the music. Whether the filmmakers were limited by rights issues or simply chose to not use concert footage, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, the Who, the Band, the Grateful Dead, name your rock legend, remain frustratingly out of reach. Tiber never made it near the festival stage with an audience of half a million strong. After seeing Taking Woodstock, I know how he feels.