Taking Woodstock

Cast:
Demetri Martin as Elliot Teichberg
Imelda Staunton as Sonia Teichberg
Henry Goodman as Jake Teichberg
Emile Hirsch as Billy
Liev Schreiber as Vilma
Jonathan Groff as Michael Lang
Mamie Gummer as Tisha
Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Dan
Eugene Levy as Max Yasgur
Paul Dano as VW Guy
Kelli Garner as VW Girl
Clark Middleton as Frank
Bette Henritze as Annie
Sondra James as Margaret
Christina Kirk as Carol
Adam LeFevre as Dave
Andy Prosky as Bob
Dan Fogler as Devon
Gabriel Sunday as Steven
Stephen Kunken as Mel Lawrence
Adam Pally as Artie Kornfeld
Kevin Sussman as Stan
Pippa Pearthree as Miriam
Skylar Astin as John Roberts
Daniel Eric Gold as Joel Rosenman
Michael Izquierdo as John Morris
Katherine Waterston as Penny
Will Janowitz as Chip Monck
Jeremy Shamos as Steve Cohen
Malachy Cleary as Wes Pomeroy
Richard Thomas as Reverend Don
Darren Pettie as Paul

Directed by Ang Lee

Summary:
“Taking Woodstock” might not end up amongst Ang Lee’s better movies, but those interested in the behind-the-scenes of the famous music festival should find Lee’s take on the subject to be as unique as his forays into other realms.

Story:
Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin) has returned home to Bethel in the Catskills of New York for the summer, there to help his parents (Imelda Staunton, Henry Goodman) run their rundown hotel, when he’s contacted by concert promoter Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) to help him get the permits to stage a three-day music festival that will bring thousands of music lovers to the area. His part in helping them stage a music festival doesn’t make Elliot popular in the community, as the area is overrun by hundreds of thousands of teens and hippies who will turn it into the event of the century.

Analysis:
At this point, we’re all well aware that Ang Lee is not quite the infallible force in cinema some might once have hoped for, but it’s hard to deny that he’s a director who takes challenging projects head on without apology or recriminations. Even so, a movie that looks at the comedy of errors involved in the planning and staging of the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival couldn’t be more of a departure for Lee if he tried, first of all because it is trying to be a comedy, but also, because it’s not exactly the Woodstock movie some might have been expecting.

Based on the memoirs and recollections of Elliot Tiber, whose name has been slightly modified to veer from the truth for artistic license, the movie marks the first dramatic turn by comedian Demetri Martin, playing “Elliot Techberg,” seemingly the only person under 30 that lives in the Catskills. Martin plays the role with the kind of wide-eyed innocence one might remember from Jason Schwartzman in his younger days, something that generally works as Elliot encounters various hippies and other quirky characters while trying to get the now legendary music festival off the ground. The core of the story revolves around his shaky relationship with his Eastern-European Jewish parents, played by Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman.

Unfortunately, the movie proves that Lee’s strongest suit is not directing comedy and he doesn’t seem up to the task of making a funny movie based on the material, most of the laughs coming from various characters taking drugs, sometimes for the first time, and showing how that affects them. More than in the past, Lee tends to allow his cast to run rampant over the material and take things a little over the top, especially when Elliot’s parents are given hash brownies and Staunton and Goodman go a little too bonkers as a result.

It’s a strange movie for sure, and in no small part due to the fact that the only real comedian in the piece is essentially playing the straight guy (so to speak). It takes well over an hour before Elliot’s sexuality is allowed out of the closet, and to Lee and writer James Schamus’ credit, it’s not turned into something that defines the character as much as one aspect of him. On the other hand, Emile Hirsch’s character, a Vietnam vet named Billy, doesn’t really bring much to the story except to touch upon that element of the late ’60s, and Liev Schreiber is far more amusing as an ex-Marine who has taken to wearing drag. Schreiber in drag is not a pretty sight, although he does make a more attractive woman than say John Lithgow in “The World According to Garp,” but only by a smidge. Jonathan Groff and Mamie Gummer are passable as promoter Michael Lang and his hippy girlfriend, though they’re just part of the mainly forgettable ensemble.

The most impressive aspect of the movie is the way Lee and his crew have recreated some of the more famous images from Michael Wadleigh’s reknowned 1970 documentary, having Elliot effortlessly walk through many of those scenes. You may think that Lee took footage from the concert movie then used computers to insert Martin into the shots, but in fact, they actually redid those scenes, shooting them with old cameras and using similar split screen techniques to make it look like Woodstock the way most people will remember it. It’s never done in a way that you feel that Lee is trying to be clever with his note-perfect nods and references, but it’s an impressive feat, not only in production design and cinematography, but also in the skill it took to wrangle so many extras to pull off the scope of such an event.

Even as you admire the astounding job they did recreating the festival, the story itself starts to lose steam as Elliot’s obligations behind the scenes are finished and he makes his way to the concert, ends up taking acid and making out in a van with Paul Dano and Kelli Garner. Elliot’s acid trip seems to serve little purpose except to allow Lee to show off a little bit while trying to recreate what that experience must be like. Those hoping to see any of the musical acts who played the festival might be slightly disappointed, even though that was clearly not the point of the movie, which was to show the planning and preparation for the event from Elliot’s perspective, but the trippy tangents the movie takes might leave some even more disappointed.

The Bottom Line:
“Taking Woodstock” is flawed but by no means the disaster some might be expecting, although it’s probably not the movie some might expect either. A more accurate and representative title might have been “Remaking Woodstock” because other than the music, that’s clearly what Lee set out to do and he mostly succeeds in that endeavor.

Taking Woodstock is now playing in New York and L.A. and it opens nationwide on Friday, August 28.

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