In one of the most famous images from Woodstock, Michael Wadleigh’s invaluable 1970 documentary about the 1969 music festival turned generation-defining gathering, a pair of nuns make the peace sign for the camera, apparently swept up in the spirit of the moment. Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock recreates the image while pulling back the curtain, watching as a camera crew coaxes the reluctant nuns into flashing the sign “for fun.” The moment falls in the middle of one of Taking Woodstock’s best scenes, a long tracking shot that follows star Demetri Martin as he treks down a crowded road toward the festival, passing everything from familiar images of flower children to pasted-over ’60s dead ends like a placard reading “Maoism = life” along the way. The sequence digs beneath the usual peace-and-love clichés, but the film around it isn’t always so probing.
Martin plays Elliot Tiber, a native of upstate New York who plays an instrumental role in bringing the festival to Bethel, New York when the original location pulls the plug. Originally volunteering the small motel owned by his financially struggling Russian-Jewish émigré parents (Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton), Martin later helps coordinate the festival in the face of local opposition, all while seemingly ignoring what its message of peace and freedom means to his own situation: An artist and veteran of the Stonewall riots, he’s eager to find a life removed from the sleepy Catskills.
Lee and screenwriter James Schamus let Martin’s journey to liberation play out at an amiable pace synced to Martin’s reserved performance. While everyone else starts turning on, he fights to keep much of his life hidden. Unfortunately, the film makes the contrast between Martin’s understatement and the characters around him a little too stark. Liev Schreiber makes a memorable appearance as a cross-dressing Korean War vet, and Jonathan Groff plays Woodstock mastermind Michael Lang as a disarming mix of shaman and con man, but stock characters like Emile Hirsch’s flipped-out Vietnam vet and a frequently nude hippie theater troupe crowd the margins. Even the usually reliable Staunton doesn’t know when to rein it in, and the film slows to a trudge once it gets to the festival and abandons the tension between profits and counterculture ideals in a swirl of nostalgia. Lee’s movie is pleasant enough, but it’s too swept up in the spirit it’s celebrating to ask the relevant questions, at least until a final scene that captures the singularity of the Woodstock moment. Looking across waste-strewn fields, characters try to process what’s happened. We know already what they can’t: It won’t happen again.