WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
It’s 1969 and Elliot Teichberg is back in his hometown of White Lake New York struggling in earnest to keep his parents’ dilapidated getaway motel in business. Elliot is a fey sensitive soul who longs to run away from the deeply set-in-its-ways White Lake to a city with more to offer culturally than weekly chamber of commerce meetings.
Elliot is tied to White Lake by a deeply felt obligation to help his aging parents both Russian holocaust survivors maintain the business. Elliot a painter does his best to bring the cultural vibrancy he yearns for to his mundane situation by planning far-fetched improvements for the cinder block motel housing a theater troupe of often naked hippies in the barn heading the area chamber of commerce and putting on a yearly “music festival” which simply involves him playing his records for anyone who wants to sit in his yard and listen
When Elliot learns a slightly more large scale music festival has been pushed out of nearby Wallkill New York (locals there fear the "hippie invasion") he realizes the permit he obtained for his record party might just work for the bigger event. He makes a few phone calls and subsequently watches history unfold in his front yard.
WHO’S IN IT?
Demetri Martin carries Taking Woodstock as the sweet sensitive Elliot. Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman each steal a few scenes as his hardened aging parents. Emile Hirsch does his best with a broadly written bit as a recently returned Vietnam veteran. Eugene Levy is Max Yasgur the farmer who offers his fields up for the hippie takeover; Liev Schreiber takes a surprisingly poignant turn as Vilma a cross dressing former army sergeant who heads the security team at the motel; and Paul Dano Mamie Gummer (daughter of Meryl Streep) and Jonathan Groff are delightful as chill-to-the-core members of the beautiful and often naked hippie legion.
Figures like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin whose portrayals could ultimately be distracting appear only on the soundtrack. Elliot never even makes it all the way down to the stage. Rather than taking on the heart of the Woodstock legend by portraying the musicians who performed there director Ang Lee uses Eliot's sweet anxious dreamy lens to tell the story.
The focus on this one character serves well to humanize an event steeped in historical lore and Martin probably best known for his stand up act effectively carries the movie. Among characters that at times come across like caricatures Martin’s performance is nuanced sad gentle wide-eyed and a touch heartbreaking as his character experiences Woodstock as catalyst for self discovery.
Through the use of split screens and multiple cameras Lee also does a masterful job of creating an excited sense of energy around the fast-paced nuts and bolts planning of the prolific event.
The writing and acting in the initial scenes feel clunky and wooden like a bad high school play. The film takes awhile finding its rhythm and devotes a bit too much time setting up Elliot’s White Lake circumstances. The humor in these scenes feels awkward and generally falls flat. Taking Woodstock finally lifts off when the helicopter full of festival planners lands in Elliot’s yard. From here it’s wholly enjoyable.
The film subtly deals with Elliot coming to terms with his homosexuality and the satisfaction in the moment when he gets a passionate kiss from and subsequently kisses back a very attractive man in the midst of a hippie dance party made me want to cheer and cry and relish in his victory.
Taking Woodstock is a bit lackadaisical in its pace and takes awhile to really become engaging. When it does however the film is funny touching and heartfelt. To see what Woodstock meant for one individual provides an understanding of what it likely meant to of the thousands upon thousands of people who experienced history there. Taking Woodstock might not be an especially important film but its pleasant insights are worth being had.