Taking Woodstock – Review

Worth seeing: for a behind-the-scenes view of one of the most historic events in modern live music, without enough of the excitement
Director:Ang Lee
Featuring:Demetri Martin, Eugene Levy, Henry Goodman, Imelda Staunton, Lee Wong, Anthoula Katsimatides, Bette Henritze, Clark Middleton, Edward Hibbert, Emile Hirsch, Kevin Chamberlin, Liev Schreiber, Paul Dano
Length:120 minutes
Released:13th November 2009


It’s 1969 and twenty something interior designer Elliot (Demetri Martin) leaves New York City to return to the motel his parents run in the Catskills. It’s run down, empty and the bank is calling in its debts.

Elliot’s overbearing immigrant mother (Imelda Staunton) and introverted father (Henry Goodman) need all the help they can get – although she’s far too proud to see it that way. It’s her son’s duty to drop everything to help them.

When a neighbouring town pulls out of staging a music festival, Elliot smells an opportunity and persuades a local farmer (Eugene Levy) to let the organisers use his field, while his parents are more than delighted to have every room at the motel rented to the crew.

Nothing can prepare this small town for the devastation that half a million people can cause – from the trampling and littering of its rainsoaked fields to arguments with the authorities and domestic disputes – but the experience ultimately brings everyone together, saves the motel, restores the familial relationships and launches one of the most famous music festivals in history.


There are few directors as versatile as Ang Lee – whose back catalogue includes dramas like The Ice Storm and Brokeback Mountain, period pieces such as Sense and Sensibility and Ride with the Devil, martial arts fantasies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the comic-book adaptation Hulk, to name but a few.

Here, he tries something new – perhaps the closest he’s come to a comedy in the English language – at least it feels like it’s meant to be a comedy.

This film is a charming enough depiction of a vibrant period of music history, bringing together the practicalities of big business with the grass-smoking bohemian artistic types.

But while Lee handles the drama and character relationships as well as you’d expect, he doesn’t really pull off the comedy. Characters such as Elliot’s Russian mother and Liev Schreiber’s transsexual security guard are both played so outrageously as to be unbelievable and taking them out of the realm of reality lessens the humour.

There’s not enough drama for it to be dramatic, there aren’t enough laughs to be a comedy and the nods to humour are rather too blunt to be effective.

Rather than showing us the bands – which in truth were the more interesting and certainly more cinematic elements of Woodstock – all we really see is the characters getting ready beforehand – working out where to put the car-park and how to rig up some public phone boxes – and hanging around muddy fields while the distant music can be heard in the background.

Without seeing the bands play, we don’t get a true sense of just how significant Elliot’s achievements really are.

And none of the characters really develop enough – or are interesting enough – for us to engage with them.

There’s little to move us – and dramatically, there’s not much at stake; if they don’t pull it off, his mother risks losing the motel, but she’s a rather loathsome creature anyway and some might think she’d deserve to lose it anyway – and this eventuality would actually have set Elliot free to pursue his own life back in the city much sooner.

There’s just not enough going on to sustain two hours and the film is stylistically muddled.

If you’re happy to meander along Elliot’s path – part determined and part confused – as he tries to rebuild the lives of all around him at the expense of building his own – it’s likeable enough – but not as impressive as you might expect from the Oscar-winning director and his source material.