Based on the book by Elliot Tiber and Tom Monte, "Taking Woodstock" is not an encapsulation of the so-called "Three Days of Peace and Music" that took place in Bethel, NY, in August 1969, but a more intimate coming-of-age story about a young man who, whether he realizes it or not, plays a large part in making the historical event happen. Written by James Schamus (2003's "Hulk
") and directed by Ang Lee (2005's "Brokeback Mountain
"), the film adopts a light, loose, unassuming tone, one that poignantly depicts what the Woodstock Festival meant to the hundreds of thousands of people who attended without becoming overly self-serious or pretentious. Mounted as a slice-of-life rather than a deep drama, the material benefits all the more from its behind-the-scenes treatment. As preparations are made and the festival ultimately arrives, the organizers and attendees, hoping for a brighter tomorrow as the Vietnam War presses down upon their present, stand at the precipice of a new decade of change they have no way of knowing they will become the prototypical poster children for.
Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin) is thirty-four years old but looks and seems much younger, stunted in his youth as he spends half his time in New York City handling an interior design business and the rest in the Catskills helping his aging parents (Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman) run the weathered, ramshackle El Monaco Motel. With the banks threatening to foreclose on their business, concert promoter Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) drops into their lives (literally, via a helicopter) like an angel descending from Heaven. He is planning the Woodstock Music Festival, but is without a place to hold it and a place to stay while he and his bevy of assistants and helpers plan it. When Michael offers Elliot and parents Jake and Sonia a load of cash for their services that will not only get them out of the hole, but allow them to live comfortably for the rest of their lives, it's a deal they can't refuse. As the festival approaches and area farmer Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy) is persuaded to lend them 600 acres of his land for the event, the varied people Elliot meets and the experiences he has send him down a potentially life-changing path of self-reflection and discovery.
If Woodstock symbolized, at least in part, freedom and sexual liberation, then the protagonist of "Taking Woodstock" is left deeply impacted by both even without ever getting close enough to see any of the world-famous music acts take the stage. Plagued by what he believes is his own responsibility, Elliot Teichberg has been by his parents' side, helping them out all his life with next to nothing received in return. Sonia, selfish and unreasonableeverything that doesn't go her way she blames on other people's prejudices against Judaismshuffles around the property, doing the bare minimum for as much money as she can scrounge up. When Elliot asks his father why he stays with someone like her, Jake's answer is as straightforward as it gets: "Because I love her." Indeed, Sonia and Jake do not really know who Elliot is in all his facets, and it is only through director Ang Lee's observational gaze that the viewer learns more about him. When a carpenter assisting in the renovations of the motel catches Elliot's eye, first at a bar and later in private, their interaction comes easy and natural. Elliot, for the first time, seems like he is in his element and comfortable sharing who he is around a group of refreshingly non-judgmental peers. Director Lee does not feel the need to make a big issue out of Elliot's homosexuality, and he shouldn't have to; he's a person, first and foremost, just like everyone else surrounding him, and that's enough.
Casting comedian Demetri Martin (2008's "The Rocker
") in the lead role of Elliot Teichberg was a brave and unorthodox move, but one that pays off. For viewers unfamiliar with Martin, they will have no idea of his comedic notoriety; he plays the role with nary a sign of mugging or artifice, and delves straight to the root of this guy who little by little gathers the courage to break away from the obligations he thinks he has and start living for himself. As the charismatic co-creator of Woodstock Michael Lang, newcomer Jonathan Groff (best-known for playing Melchior in the original cast of Broadway's "Spring Awakening") is note-perfect, the kind of friendly, self-assured smooth operator a person simply cannot say no to. Mamie Gummer (2008's "Stop-Loss
"), too, emanates a comfortable, soulful quality as Tisha, Michael's right-hand gal.
Imelda Staunton (2007's "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
") is scarily convincing as Elliot's set-in-her-ways mother Sonia, a woman who has so yearned all her life for material possessions that it seems she'd be willing to give up everything else (including her family) for them. There is a tragedy to Staunton's final scenes that she plays with bravura fearlessness, refusing to soften (but also not demonize) this complex, purposefully frustrating character. As Vilma, an ex-Marine-turned-transvestite-with-a-heart-of-gold, Liev Schreiber (2009's "X-Men Origins: Wolverine
") is a scene-stealer who humanizes in multiple shades a part that could have been a cheap cliché or comic relief with a lesser script and performer. Even Eugene Levy (2006's "For Your Consideration
") keeps from feeling out of place, playing things low-key as farmer Max Yasgur. If there is a weakor, if not weak, lesserlink, it would be Emile Hirsch (2008's "Speed Racer
"), whose supporting turn as Elliot's former childhood friend, shell-shocked Vietnam War vet Billy, feels too showy and typecast to match the imagination and quirkiness of the rest of the picture. Hirsch is finehe has a very nice moment in the third act subtly underscored by The Band's "I Shall Be Released"but it's a role that seems overly familiar.
Character-oriented rather than plot-driven, "Taking Woodstock" is blessedly free of villains and false threats, instead allowing the whirlwind portrayal of Woodstock as seen from the point-of-view of Elliot Teichberg wash over the proceedings. When he first arrives on the outskirts of the sloping Yasgur farm field and finds himself dropping acid with a free-love hippie couple (Paul Dano and Kelli Garner) to the musical stylings of Love's harmonious "The Red Telephone," it's a purely magical movie moment signaling to Elliot that there's more possibilities in life than what he has left open for himself. When Woodstock is over, he is going to be all right. Idealistic but not idealizedthe fact that a large portion of the celebration took place under pouring rain, leading to onstage technical malfunctions and turning the field into a giant mudpile, is not overlookedthe film contains a bittersweet quality that suggests without spelling out how truly monumental, meaningful, and one-of-a-kind Woodstock was. It will never be able to be recreated without the ulterior motive of recreating it, and besides, too much has happened in the decades since to recapture the same innocence and hope we once had. Meanwhile, forty years later, impassioned pleas for peace and acceptance press on. Some things, it turns out, never change.