August 1969, and as Americans basked in the afterglow of putting man on the moon, and US soldiers died in the jungles of Vietnam, one of the most pivotal moments in the history of popular music was born when 500,000 people descended on a 600-acre farm outside Bethel, 43 miles from its original intended location, Woodstock, in a climax of 1960s counter-culture.
Directed by the Oscar-winning Ang Lee, 'Taking Woodstock' is the iconic 60s festival seen through the eyes of Elliot Teichberg (Martin). Elliot is a gay, Jewish interior designer who has been living in Greenwich Village, and returns home to help his overbearing parents (Goodman and Staunton), save the family hotel, which is badly in debt and under threat from the bank.
As president of the Chamber of Commerce, and holder of a concert permit, Elliot gives the green light to the festival after organisers have been run out of every town in the surrounding area. He sets Michael Lang (Groff) up with local farmer Max Yasgur (Levy), and despite plenty of objections from the local townspeople what ensues are three days of peace, love and lots of recreational drugs, man.
'Taking Woodstock' is in essence a small story which takes place in the shadow of a very big event. Elliot (with a rather surprisingly stunning stand-out performance by comedian Martin) is struggling with accepting his homosexuality, and is worried about his parents' reaction. He is also eager to move to the west coast haven of San Francisco, but can't seem to summon the courage to do so.
Woodstock itself has been done of course; Michael Wadleigh's 1970 documentary, and the countless others that have followed, have seen to that. So what Lee does manage to do is, in its own small way, impressive. He introduces the audience to Woodstock - the vibes, the feelings, the atmosphere, the people - without showing them a single minute of the actual concert.
The decision not to use any of the original footage of Woodstock is a brave, although puzzling move. On one hand it comes as a relief not to not see Jimi Hendrix look-a-likes, or dodgy super-imposed shots of The Who clog up the screen. As the movie wears on, however, it starts to get a little frustrating. Anyone even slightly familiar with the original festival will attest to the quality of some of the performances, and to omit them in their entirety seems like cheating the audience.
Where the film's main fault lies, though, is the over-reliance on tired, common clichés. We have the overbearing Jewish mother, the Vietnam vet still struggling to come to terms with his part in the war, an endless supply of hippies who preach peace, love and turning on and the reluctant, small minded townspeople who react against change.
We also have a central protagonist who must come to terms with who he is and where he came from in order to be happy. Sound familiar? It is, and you've seen it all before in one guise or another. Staunton's portrayal of Elliot's mother is particularly grating, and tiresome from the beginning.
Some would argue, though, that Woodstock itself has become as tired a cliché as some of the ones mentioned above. How Lee succeeds in adding a fresh twist and a new dimension to an event which has been recounted ad nauseam over the past 40 years ultimately redeems what is in fact a very unsubstantial film.