Woodstock is generally regarded as the greatest concert of all time and the defining moment of the baby-boomer generation. Half a million young people from all over the country gathered in the small town of Bethel, in the Catskills Mountains of upstate New York, for three days of peace and music during the summer of 1969, with the epic event boasting performances from such legends as Santana, The Who, Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix.
“Taking Woodstock,” directed by Academy Award-winner Ang Lee (“Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” and “Brokeback Mountain”), is the true story of one such youth – Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin of “Important Things with Demetri Martin”), the twenty-something year-old who saved the music festival from its near cancellation.
Failing with his interior design career, Elliot moves back home to help his crazed, Jewish-immigrant mother (Imelda Staunton) and quiet father (Henry Goodman) run their cheap, unsafe and run-down motel. After the bank gives them only the summer season to pay back their overdue loans before foreclosing the business, Elliot sees the upcoming Woodstock festival, which was just chased out of a nearby town, as an opportunity to save his parent’s beloved El Monaco Motel.
Elliot convinces Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) and the other concert producers to hold the event in his neighbor Max Yasgur’s (the always enjoyable Eugene Levy) 600-acre meadow, leading them to also buy out the motel for the season, which they use as a headquarters. The quaint little town soon starts overflowing with hippies eagerly awaiting Woodstock, and the Teichberg motel’s financial crisis becomes a thing of the past.
After this opening act, the rest of “Taking Woodstock” is basically just how Elliot and his parents live with and are affected by being in the middle of this life-changing event. Elliot’s mother comes to terms with her overwhelming greed, his father’s interest in life is reignited and Elliot finally begins to find and define himself as a person.
So anyone looking for a movie highlighting the music of the greatest rockfest ever should check out the 1970 concert documentary “Woodstock,” because “Taking Woodstock” is a coming-of-age comedy first and foremost, using the event solely as a backdrop. The stage is only shown during its construction and deconstruction, and there isn’t even a glimpse of any musical artists.
Admittedly, I was a little disappointed by this. Music surprisingly doesn’t play a significant role in the film, allowing instead for more focus to be put on the fully-developed characters and often times low-key humor. This choice seems to improve the emotional core of the movie, but limits its appeal to more refined tastes.
Likewise, the comedy is a bit hit-and-miss due to the subtlety of some jokes, but overall the movie succeeds in being quite funny, especially the scenes involving the absurd thespians living in the Tiechberg’s barn. They prance around stark naked in two different scenes, both times with absolutely hilarious results.
Liev Schreiber, as a cross-dressing ex-marine the Teichbergs hire for security, also gives a memorably humorous performance. He and Emile Hirsch, who portrays a stressed out Vietnam vet, both play important roles in inciting Elliot to come out of his shell, and add to the film’s warm message.
Demetri Martin provides the central comic relief though, usually through down-played, deadpan comedic timing, but he’s also quite a likable protagonist. Proving he can do more than just make silly comments on television, Martin pulls off the amiable attitude and wonderment of his character with ease.
The audience gets a strong sense of Elliot’s fascination with the new hippie culture thanks to Ang Lee’s vivid vision, displayed with strong, bright colors, split-screen shots and the general atmosphere of joy permeated throughout the movie. The acid trip scene paints an incredible, awe-inspiring picture, and does a perfect job of making the trip seem like reality.
Even though “Taking Woodstock” slows down midway through, it’s insider perspective of the festival is truly captivating, and it manages to be thoughtfully entertaining as well. While the music is mostly absent from the movie, the peace, love and fun definitely are not.
Three out of Four Stars