The beginning: Elliot Tiber dreams of going to California “to paint, design and be free.” Instead, he is stuck in the Catskills helping his ungrateful parents run their motel. The filthy motel, thousands of dollars in debt, has no air conditioning, towels or locks on the doors. Elliot feels repressed and uninspired!
The end: After Elliot randomly and luckily volunteers to host the now-famous Woodstock festival on a nearby cow field, his parents’ mortgage is paid off and vast improvements are made to the motel. But Woodstock teaches Elliot more important lessons! He learns to break free from his repression and embrace his passions, his sexuality and his parents’ attitudes. He also takes his first acid trip.
If it seems awfully easy to connect the dots between the beginning and the end, that’s because it is. From the time you register the film’s title (“Taking Woodstock”) and witness Elliot’s flustered acceptance of the motel’s disgusting conditions, it’s clear the direction in which we’re headed. It’s not so much that “Taking Woodstock” prompts you to count *down* the minutes, but simply to count them.
Not one moment of concert footage appears in the movie. In limiting the film to Elliot’s experience, Lee aims to make the story personal and relatable — instead he makes it bland and trite. We’re stuck watching Elliot discover himself in a mini-van while Janis Joplin changes the world onstage.
This all isn’t to say the film isn’t without its merits. “Woodstock” approaches relevance when it reaches beyond Tiber’s coming-of-age parable. The subtext of monetary exploitation of the hippie movement resonates in the age of Urban Outfitters, and a story line about music as a free medium aligns with modern arguments over DRM and streaming music.
The actors also manage to get the most out of the material. Despite the rather prosaic story line, Demetri Martin charms as Elliot. He commits to the role completely, from his uncomfortable posture and movements to his stilted enunciation. Likewise Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton bring much needed nuance and humor to their roles as Elliot’s conflicted parents.
The ultimate failure of the film comes down to the direction. Lee inconsistently reverts to confusing split-screen montages (in the style of “24”) — a rather cheap and forced way of showing how frenetic and ecstatic the festival was. The film is oddly paced: the climatic acid trip drags on, while some fascinating story lines are given short shrift (Emile Hirsch’s Vietnam veteran, for example).
It’s an ironic twist, in the end. A film about the most famously liberated concert in history is afraid to break away from expectations.