The Woodstock music festival, aka “three days of peace and music,” celebrates its 40th anniversary this month, provoking plenty of rose-colored retrospectives. It seems almost redundant to have formal commemorations of Woodstock, since American pop culture has mythologized the event since its inception. You have to wonder if baby boomers were nostalgic over Woodstock even before it happened.
In Taking Woodstock, Brokeback Mountain director Ang Lee attempts to dispel some of the event's Age of Aquarius lore. Moments of Taking Woodstock either affirm the festival's clichés or construct new ones, although the film’s centerpiece goes a long way to explain what all the fuss is about.
The opening credits establish the humble getaways of the Catskills in upstate New York. Among them is the town of Bethel's grandly titled El Monaco Resort and Hotel, a dilapidated motel managed by elderly Russian immigrants Sonia and Jake Teichberg (Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman, respectively). Their only son, Elliot (Demetri Martin), reluctantly helps out at the Monaco while hustling to establish a career as an artist/designer in Greenwich Village.
With a bank on the verge of foreclosing on the debt-ridden El Monaco, Elliot tries to think of a better way to drum up new business than the new tourist kiosk across the highway. When he hears that a big music concert has been kicked out of a nearby town, he offers the promoters the music permit he happens to hold. (The film points out the irony that the Woodstock name stuck, even though it took place elsewhere.)
The sleepy El Monaco becomes the epicenter of a generation-defining event. Beatific promoter Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) comes across as a hippie Adonis who radiates good vibes and says “far out” a lot. Michael, his investors and their hirsute support staff buy out the El Monaco as a base of operations and negotiate with open-minded dairy farmer Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy) to use his field for the concert. Throughout the film, Lee focuses on food and money to ground 1960s idealism in tangible terms.
The Teichbergs and Yasgurs face anti-Semitic slurs from the hippie-hating townies, but Taking Woodstock primarily unfolds as a low-key comedy, and humor isn’t Lee’s forte. Staunton’s heavily accented, self-dramatizing Jewish mother plays like a crude stereotype out of sketch comedy, as does Emile Hirsch's flashback-prone Vietnam veteran. (Or maybe he’s suffering from the ravages of starring in Speed Racer.) The pretentious, oft-naked theater troupe in Elliot’s barn predictably upsets the local squares, while a romp through the mud on the concert’s outskirts — inevitably accompanied by Canned Heat’s “Going Up the Country” — plays like a Woodstock caricature worthy of a TV commercial.
Comedian Demetri Martin’s performance as Elliot lacks much subtle technique but has a likable authenticity comparable to singer Arlo Guthrie in 1969’s Alice’s Restaurant. Elliot’s conflicts feel like cinematic contrivances. Taking Woodstock suggests that the concert, along with new mentors such as Liev Schreiber's likable, mannish drag queen, inspire him to pursue what he wants romantically and professionally. You have to wonder if the real Elliot Tiber was as mousy as Martin’s portrayal. At the time, he was a working artist, president of Bethel’s (tiny) chamber of commerce, and clearly a go-getter. It’s hard to sympathize with his deferred plans to move to California, given that he lives part-time in New York City. (Incidentally, in his memoir, Tiber describes being on the scene of the 1969 Stonewall riots, which took place a month before the film’s events but gets no mention here.)
Taking Woodstock only seems to find itself when the concert begins. Elliot and his friends hear echoes of an electric guitar from across a lake filled with nude bathers. A long, panning shot follows Elliot along the teeming road toward the stage and feels like it contains every imaginable personality type. Elliot’s acid trip with a pair of strangers, though stereotyped, culminates with a dreamy shot of the venue as an undulating sea of light. This centerpiece finally captures the idea of Woodstock as a fleeting moment that unified a generation in shared purpose, and the audience, not the performers, was what made the event so special.
Too often, however, the film’s hippie glorification makes you hope that Taking Woodstock will have an Inglourious Basterds-style ending that changes history with a blaze of machine-gun fire.