After doing a bunch of tragedies in a row, Ang Lee said he set out to make something lighthearted and fun. So, following The Ice Storm; Ride with the Devil; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Hulk; Brokeback Mountain; and Lust, Caution; he made Taking Woodstock. Not a lot to say here about this one, since it seems somewhere between a failed attempt and a confused endeavor. It’s a romp, a tribute to a more carefree time (aside from the whole ‘Nam thing), and a more human take on what most people either remember or have only seen (re)presented as chaotic rock ‘n roll mudwrestling. There are those elements, also, in Taking Woodstock, minus the rock ‘n roll. The absence of the music is so overt, so intentional, that the film does seem lacking in this regard. In so doing, Lee’s point is quite clear, but he could have maintained that clarity without so completely excluding the musical element from the film.
Taking Woodstock focuses on Elliot, the old kid or young man who helps organize the event. Lee’s camera sticks to him to such an extent that the viewer essentially sees nothing that Elliot does not see; very strict POV stuff. What seems to be one long awakening experience hints strongly at tragedy at the end, when the Woodstock producer says he’s off to San Francisco to put on a Rolling Stones concert that promises to be even better than ‘Stock. Can’t for the life of me figure out what Lee means to say here. Why include this foreshadow of the death of 60s utopia? It feels like a cynical wink at the audience. If Lee had portrayed the whole event as fundamentally misguided, this would make more sense. He certainly does show the gritty underbelly of Woodstock, but he always wants it to be quite redemptive.
On the last night of Woodstock, Elliot comes home to find his old-school Jewish-Russian parents doped up on brownies, having a ball. It’s a delightful little bit that ends with Elliot putting them to bed. They awaken the following morning to find his mother asleep halfway in the closet clutching a hundred thousands dollars in cash that she has been hiding away for years, even in light of the family’s severe financial situation before Woodstock could let them retire in comfort. This is a microcosm of Woodstock within the film, one would suppose: an evening of drug-induced joy, then arising to the harsh facts of what the shallow joy was just temporarily covering up. If this is what Lee is getting at, it feels trite and simplistic. If he wants it to be a joyride, let it be a joyride. But he can’t seem to shake his tendency toward the tragic. He tosses it in there as carelessly as a group of hippies tipping an RV.