Plot Summary: An uptight son struggling to save his parents’ motel in the Catskills invites the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival to take place in his small town, not realizing it will change his life—along with American culture—forever.
Reason for the Rating: Graphic nudity, some sexual content, drug use and language.
Thanks to a friend in the “biz,” I had the privilege of attending an advanced screening of Taking Woodstock. The director, Academy Award winner Ang Lee, said a few words about his movie before the showing. He didn’t speak for very long, but he really emphasized the fact that after making two dark, serious movies in a row (Lust, Caution and Brokeback Mountain), he was drawn to Taking Woodstock because it was light and enjoyable. He really wanted to make a fun movie that audiences would find entertaining. That, he said, was his main goal for Taking Woodstock.
After watching the movie and thinking about Lee’s words, I think it’s safe to say that entertainment, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
Taking Woodstock centers on Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin), a young man who longs to strike out on his own and live his life, but who feels the weight of family responsibility holding him back. His parents own a small motel in the Catskills, and they face losing it to foreclosure. Elliot regularly comes home to the motel from his job in New York City to help his parents make a profit, but this summer—the summer of 1969—things look pretty dire.... until Elliot learns that the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival is in need of a new venue. Right away, he realizes the potential profits to be gained from something like this, and he manages to get the festival to come to his tiny town and to let him help run the show. Suddenly, his parents’ motel is Woodstock Headquarters. They’re making money hand-over-fist, and Elliot is left to find himself amidst the madness happening all around him. He struggles with letting down his guard, being honest with himself and his father about his sexuality (he is gay but has never told his parents), and learning how to let go of his urge to control everything. But mostly, he learns that Woodstock is one crazy experience—an experience that he helped to create.
On a very surface level, Taking Woodstock is a somewhat fun film. It romanticizes the Woodstock era, and is full of good music and some laughs. I wasn’t too impressed with Martin’s acting prowess, but other actors, such as Imelda Staunton as Elliot’s mother and Emile Hirsch as a young man recently returned from Vietnam, turn in good performances. It is also fun to see a depiction of how many people actually went to Woodstock and how wild it really was. It was messy, crowded, rainy and disorganized, and this is interesting to watch. Today, Woodstock is remembered as an event that defined a generation, and Lee manages to capture some of this nostalgia with his film.
However, there are also plenty of things in this movie that viewers—especially ones looking for family-friendly fare—will not find entertaining. There’s the nudity, for one. (Yes, there’s lots of it, and yes, it’s graphic.) There’s the constant glorification of drug abuse, including a vivid scene depicting use of acid. There's the obligatory steady stream of profanity. And the list could go on and on. Suffice it to say that Taking Woodstock is in no way an innocent comedy. Also, though Elliot does struggle with serious issues and coming to grips with his identity, this plot line isn’t developed enough. In fact, it is constantly upstaged by the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll of Woodstock nostalgia, making it more of an afterthought than the movie’s true heart.
Overall, I’d have to say that Taking Woodstock just doesn’t pack enough of a punch to make it worthwhile, either artistically or historically. It has some things to say about identity and love, but the gratuitous parts get in the way. I know the overall goal was to have fun and entertain, but I can’t help but thinking that this film could have done more in the "entertain" side of that goal. Unfortunately for me, this one missed its mark.
Though interesting and filled with nostalgia, Taking Woodstock isn’t a must-see movie--and it certainly isn’t family fare. At best it’s a rental—to be seen after the kids are in bed.
Let’s Talk About It
Use these questions to spark discussion among family members who are interested in this movie:
• Why do you suppose Woodstock became such a generation-defining moment?
• In your opinion, what elements of Taking Woodstock were positive, fun, and entertaining? Is there anything to be learned from these elements?
• If Jesus Christ had attended Woodstock--and been in this movie--what do you think he would have done?
Note: All movie-related graphics in this column are standard publicity/promotional shots and are owned by their respective movie studios.