For a native son of one of the planet's more GLBT-oppressive countries (Taiwan), director Ang Lee sure doesn't have much fear around the subject of homosexuality. Although he does seem to get squeamish when it gets to their more passionate scenes (Lee is straight and married), he nonetheless deserves our appreciation for helping to mainstream same-sex relationships internationally with his well-received films The Wedding Banquet and Brokeback Mountain.
While Taking Woodstock, Lee's new film, isn't as well-made or significant as those earlier works, it unapologetically shows how the huge, transformative concert event of 1969 likely wouldn't have occurred without the participation of several gay or questioning men.
Chief among these was Elliot Tiber (Demetri Martin), a budding young entrepreneur dedicated to keeping his immigrant-Jewish parents (great performances by Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman) and their run-down Catskills resort financially afloat. Opportunity knocks when a neighboring town cancels what would become Woodstock due to citizens' fears of hippies "stealing everything and raping the cattle."
Teichberg and neighboring dairy farmer Max Yasgur (an excellent turn by Eugene Levy) invite Woodstock's organizers — led by Spring Awakening's Jonathan Groff as the enigmatic and sexy Michael Lang — to consider holding the event on Yasgur's sizeable property. The rest is history.
During the course of the movie, the closeted Teichberg receives encouragement to embrace his sexuality from a transsexual former Marine (Liev Schreiber) who offers to serve as Elliot's family's personal security detail, a hunky carpenter (Darren Pettie) he takes a fancy to, and a free-loving bisexual couple (Paul Dano and Kelli Garner) he hooks up with at the concert.
The first half of Taking Woodstock is wonderful. Lee, screenwriter James Schamus — adapting Tiber's autobiography — and the exceptional cast (which also features Emile Hirsch, Watchmen's Jeffrey Dean Morgan and "John- Boy" himself, Richard Thomas) find no shortage of ironic and often downright funny moments in this true story.
Unfortunately, the tone becomes more serious and the pacing meanders in the film's second half. Though the film's running time is just over two hours, it ends up feeling closer to three. There are too many sequences of Elliot slogging his way through the crowds and post-storm mud for no real purpose. When he meets Dano and Garner's seductive, acid-dropping characters, the encounter goes on too long despite some cool hallucinogenic special effects.
The actual Woodstock event likely went on for too long in many of the locals' and perhaps even some of the participants' estimation. Forty years later, though, it continues to cast a mystical spell over those who were there as well as many people who weren't even born yet. While Taking Woodstock doesn't have the power to convert non-believers, it is despite its flaws a generally worthy anecdote. This is especially the case for GLBT moviegoers.
UPDATE: Taking Woodstock is now available on DVD and Blu-rayfrom Amazon.com.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.