Ang Lee’s last film was called Lust/Caution, which is an apt description of the play in all his work — even Hulk — between yielding to messy (often sexual) feelings and exercising discipline, holding back. He’s among the last directors I’d have thought would want to make a movie about the 1969 Woodstock festival, which was, at least in the popular imagination, all yielding and no holding. But it’s easy to see why Elliot Tiber’s memoir Taking Woodstock (written with Tom Monte) caught his fancy. Its voice is temperate, its true subject the impact of the festival on a closeted young gay man who’s finally emboldened to let it all hang out. Tiber, né Teichberg, was heir to his parents’ seedy, debt-ridden Catskills motel, and when the proposed Woodstock festival was expelled from several New York towns whose elders feared a glut of filthy, nasty hippies, he saw an opportunity. Tiber had a permit for a very modest music festival of his own in White Lake, near Bethel, and he found the Woodstock planners a spot at Max Yasgur’s nearby farm. His parents’ motel became a hub; the money poured in; and in spite of the locals’ anti-Semitic threats, by the time Joni Mitchell got to Woodstock the kids were stardust, golden, and half a million strong.
Lee and his producer and screenwriter, James Schamus, have turned Tiber’s book into a gentle, rather tepid film. Its first half is modest and likable, but it goes on for over two hours, and even with some gay smooching and a lengthy acid trip it stays cool and cerebral; it doesn’t build. You don’t expect counterculture fervor from Lee, but the setting cries out for some raffishness and hustle, with maybe a touch of Robert Altman’s ensemble ringmastery. Most of the emotional weight in Taking Woodstock is on transactions — like the one between Yasgur (Eugene Levy!) and Jonathan Groff (as organizer Michael Lang in a vest with no shirt, looking like a scrubbed hippie Adonis from a stock company production of Godspell). It’s a nice moment when Yasgur tells Lang he expects the organizers to clean up after themselves — but that joke has no payoff. You don’t see Yasgur surveying the endless mud and shit. You’re not even told that the organizers did clean up.
Part (but by no means all) of the problem is Demetri Martin, who plays Tiber. On his Comedy Central show, Martin is a deadpan genius, dropping one-liners that seem to come from the dark side of the moon — yet light up our world, making it strange and new. But the part taps nothing except his bland ingenuousness, and he ends up a dull bystander. In his memoir, Tiber doesn’t have a sparkling personality, either, but early chapters detail the pain and fear of being in the closet — and reveal that he was actually at the Stonewall gay bar in Greenwich Village the night of the infamous police raid. Imagine, throwing rocks at police at Stonewall and then grooving at Woodstock. You’ll have to imagine: There’s no hint of that side of Tiber onscreen.
The other actors make little impact — even Emile Hirsch as a traumatized Vietnam vet and Liev Schreiber as a giant transvestite named Vilma who becomes the motel’s director of security. Schreiber goes against the grain and eschews camp, playing it straight and matter-of-fact, letting his deep voice and outlandish attire carry the comedy. I liked him well enough, but the movie needs more loopiness, more risk-taking. Well, there is one vivid performance: the British actress Imelda Staunton, fresh from her turn as Harry Potter’s most sadistic instructor, as Tiber’s monstrous, penny-pinching Jewish hysteric of a mother. When this raving Yiddish gnome is onscreen you don’t know where to look. Staunton is amazing and ghastly: Her shrill, stylized turn is in a different key than everyone else’s mild naturalism. And Lee and Schamus make a huge mistake: They have Tiber learning a big, Arthur Miller–ish secret about his mother that becomes the film’s real climax and helps to trigger his leave-taking. But in Tiber’s book, that secret is in the epilogue, presented as a sad, ironic twist. Making it a Big Moment takes some of the thunder from Woodstock itself.
Not that there’s too much thunder anyway. The trippy scenes are studied, as if the director were an android reproducing transcendence without experiencing it. The most evocative moment in the film is from a distance, when Tiber hears the first stirrings of the concert through the trees: The sound design is perfect — echo-y, ghostly, yet tantalizing. Too bad the filmmakers are true to the historical facts and Tiber is too busy at the motel and never actually gets to that concert. Sure, it’s unlikely the filmmakers could afford half a million extras (or even a thousand), but the sheer scale of Woodstock is central to its role in history, and seeing nothing is a real bummer, man.