Just think how marvelous it will be when someone produces a definitive cinematic account of what happened behind the scenes at Woodstock in 1969. But you’ll have to think hard, and use your imagination, because Ang Lee’s “Taking Woodstock” ain’t it.
Oh, it’s pleasant enough. My goodness, it has pleasantness in spades. Its star, Demetri Martin, is the epitome of benign pleasantness. He and the movie are perfect for each other, both of them agreeable and inoffensive, likable and sort of funny but not very substantive. I can think of no reason to see the movie but no good reason not to, either. I remember smiling a fair amount during it. I guess that’s a recommendation.
Martin, a rising comedian with a show on Comedy Central, plays Elliot Teichberg (later changed to Tiber), a second-generation Russian Jew whose parents own an awful motel in the Catskills, in upstate New York, in 1969. The El Monaco Resort, as it’s called — not El Monaco, The El Monaco — barely pulls in enough guests to stay open, and Elliot, who’s trying to make a living in New York City as an interior designer, has had to put up a lot of his own money to help his parents, quiet old Jake (Henry Goodman) and very un-quiet Sonia (Imelda Staunton).
The Teichbergs are behind on their mortgage when Elliot notices that a nearby town has canceled a permit for the Woodstock rock festival to take place there. Soon Elliot’s on the phone with Woodstock organizer Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff), a spacey, soft-spoken, well-monied hippie who’s been putting on large rock fests like this all over the place. The El Monaco’s grounds turn out to be too small for an event of that size, but an elderly dairy farmer named Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy), a couple miles down the road, has plenty of land, and a relatively open mind about popular music to boot.
Woodstock turns out to be a pretty big deal, as you may have heard, with tens of thousands of young people gathering in the tiny town for days before the music was scheduled to begin. It’s summer, so no one is in school; they’re hippies, so no one has jobs. Elliot, a closeted homosexual and timid man who would be considered “square” by most of his peers, tries to get away from his duties at the now-packed El Monaco enough to enjoy some of the cultural revolution taking place down on Max Yasgur’s farm.
“Taking Woodstock,” whose title verb is much too forceful, is based on Elliot Tiber’s memoir and adapted by James Schamus, a regular Ang Lee collaborator. Lee hits all the major points about the summer of 1969 — Vietnam angst, tension in Israel, the moon landing — and recreates the look and feel of the moment with his typical eye to detail. The concert itself is not shown, only referred to off in the distance as the real story takes place among the muddy throngs.
But that real story isn’t very compelling, or at least it doesn’t come across that way. Elliot’s relationship with his parents, especially his battle-ax mother, has potential for insight but remains surface-level. Seeing his old-fashioned father befriend a transvestite security guard named Vilma (Liev Schreiber) gives Elliot hope that his own homosexuality might be palatable, too, should he ever come out to his parents; that’s about the extent of the film’s attempt at depth. Oh, and Elliot has a buddy (Emile Hirsch) who came back from Vietnam all screwed up in the head. And … that’s it.
The decision to remain light and fluffy rather than really explore any of these characters must have been a conscious one. As far as nice, innocuous entertainment goes, “Taking Woodstock” is just fine, taking the event about as seriously as the people who attended it did without condescending to them. It never really captures the rebellion of it, though, only the shallow pleasures.
B- (1 hr., 50 min.; )