Taking Woodstock, 2009
“Directed” by Ang Lee
(No Stars)

It’s been forty years since Woodstock and over time it’s been used for a metaphor for just about everything. But Woodstock as Jewish guilt!? After sitting through 120 minutes of this cinematic bad trip we can only conclude that director Ang Lee must have gotten hold of some leftover brown acid. This is easily the worst film of 2009 and a strong contender for the most inept movie of the century.

Demetri Martin plays the role of Elliot Teichberg (now Tiber), upon whose book James Schamus's gratuitous screenplay of Taking Woodstock is based. Teichberg was indeed the head of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce in 1969, and he played a role in helping relocate the Woodstock Music Festival to Max Yasgur’s farm when the town of Walkill pulled the plug. It’s highly doubtful that he was as important as he pretends to be in the narrative that unfolds—or should we say unravels—on the screen. Teichberg’s historical significance is just one of many things in the script that’s up for grabs, though the overall product is so horrible that we can’t imagine anyone caring enough to dispute them.

To say that Woodstock isn’t the film’s main focus would presuppose it had one. Insofar as we could tell, the central drama is Elliot’s coming of age as a gay, Jewish artist. To do so he must break the histrionic grip of his guilt-inducing, domineering mother (Imelda Staunton), who tyrannizes him and rides roughshod over her milquetoast husband (Henry Goodman). We infer that had it not been for Woodstock, Elliot might still be in the closet and managing a moldering ramshackle motel in upstate New York. Although we wouldn’t wish that fate on anyone, it would have spared the world from this film.

Perhaps we’re being too harsh on Teichberg. After all, it is a director’s job to fashion a coherent film. Ang Lee demonstrates less craft than an armless carpenter and makes mistakes that would be unforgiveable even from a first-year film student. Consider the soundtrack. One of the first songs is from The Doors and one of the last is from Traffic; neither band played at Woodstock. Lee’s idea of cleverness is to copy the split screen technique of Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 documentary—advanced stuff back then; pretty tame now—and to graft stereotypes onto stolen ideas. Among the latter, Liev Schreiber’s drag queen Vilma is a lame echo of John Lithgow’s Roberta Muldoon in The World According to Garp; the surrealistic parade of hippies filing into the concert is clumsily ripped from Fellini’s Satyricon; and the ridiculous Earthlight Players are a naked (and idiotic) version of The Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

It’s seldom a good omen when a film is billed—as is this one—as having been “inspired by a true story.” That phrase generally means that facts take a back seat. In Taking Woodstock, Lee butchers history even worse than he shames celluloid. Imagine every simplistic stereotype of the 1960s your mind can conjure and Lee will have trumped you. There were, for example, no mass bra burnings at Woodstock. (Bra burning as a social phenomenon was more mythical than real, an isolated event painted as widespread by antifeminists seeking to discredit the women’s movement.) On a more substantive level, Lee imbues the character of Billy (Emile Hirsch) with a stoned, Charles Manson-like danger that grossly distorts and dishonors Vietnam vets. Lee didn’t even bother to separate trends from the Sixties from those that would not emerge until the 1970s (such as Billy’s post-traumatic stress disorder, a diagnosis that isn’t named until 1978.)

We could go on, but why bother? This film is so bad that it might someday reemerge as a camp classic, but for now you should avoid it as you would a man vomiting in the street. Don’t pay to see it, don’t put it on your Netflix queue, don’t borrow it from the library, don’t TiVo when it’s aired, and don’t believe anyone who says it’s not so bad. Yes—it is. We felt horrifically guilty having wasted two hours watching Taking Woodstock and we’re not even Jewish!


Anonymous said...

The screenplay was not written by Elliot Tiber - it was written by James Schamus. Tiber's book TAKING WOODSTOCK has received great words whenever/wherever reviewed . . . you might consider reading it.

Rob said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rob said...

Who cares who wrote the screen play? It was a very bad film. Woodstock was 40 yrs ago and I wish we could simply move on.