By Dann Gire
"Taking Woodstock," Ang Lee's hippy trip down memory lane to the
biggest block party in the Age of Aquarius, offers a clever running
gag about the young man responsible for making the Woodstock event happen.
Every time that Elliot Teichberg (comedian Demetri Martin) tries to
catch some onstage action with Jimi Hendrix, The Who or Joan Baez,
his crazy mom distracts him, or he gets sidetracked by a sexually
liberated couple in a minivan, or general mayhem breaks out and he
has to deal with it.
So, Elliot misses the party.
Likewise, "Taking Woodstock" misses the boat. (Or should that be
"Taking Woodstock" is a pleasant, amusing behind-the-scenes story of
how the music phenomenon came into existence. But its meager payoffs
come in small doses. A couple of showcase sequences highlight the
film, along with an obligatory acid trip, and a freakishly perfect
supporting role by Eugene Levy as Max Yasgur, the owner of the
The story begins with mild-mannered Elliot (based on the real Elliot
Tiber) taking a summer off from his New York job to help his
eccentric, aging parents operate their rundown Catskills motel, the
El Monaco. His dad (Henry Goodman) is a nice guy without much
ambition. His mom (Imelda Staunton) is psychotically frugal and
controlling. Together, they could be in a Catskills version of "My
Big Fat Greek Wedding."
Every year Elliot takes out a city permit to put on an annual music
and arts festival. He has no idea how valuable that permit is until
legendary producer Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff, making a big
impression with minimal screen time) needs a spot to quickly relocate
a massive rock concert.
Elliot already has the festival permit. Yasgur (who could be Levy's
twin if you squint) has the 600-acre location.
Suddenly, the small agrarian community becomes the epicenter of the
universe for half a million people cramming into a field for the
concert of their generation.
Ang Lee, coming off his controversial dramas "Brokeback Mountain" and
the adults-only "Lust, Caution," pushes the story along at a
leisurely pace, just brisk enough to stave off boredom, but never
establishing any sense of urgency or immediacy.
He creates two extraordinary showcase sequences that make sitting
through the lesser ones worthwhile. The first is when Elliot wants to
go see the concert several miles away, so a flower-powered motorcycle
cop offers him a lift. Off they go in a series of wondrous shots that
track Elliot as he maneuvers through a long and winding road clogged
with an endless array of bell-bottoms, paisley shirts and love beads.
The second is an awe-inspiring night scene where Elliot sees the
concert stage in the distance, surrounded by figurative waves of
people undulating in a literal sea of humanity. Very cool.
There's a real danger in never showing any of the concert action,
because the entire movie defaults to a mediocre domestic drama where
Elliot deals with his immigrant parents while striking up a sexual
relationship with an attractive guy on a construction crew.
At best, Martin possesses an innocuous screen presence, and he's way
too bland and unassertive to carry the movie on his own.
He gets a little help, but not enough, from Liev Schreiber as a
cross-dressing former Marine security agent named Vilma, and his good
friend Billy (Emile Hirsch), a Vietnam War vet with social-adjustment issues.
Of course, the nubile members of the Earth Light Players, Elliot's
local theater troupe, constantly doffing their duds for an impromptu
political skit don't hurt.
In this film, the moons don't stay in the seventh house.