By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Point of disclosure: On Woodstock eve my friend Judy called and asked if I were going. “Nah, it’s going to rain.” So much for being sensible. But although I no longer regret missing those momentous three days of peace and music in August of 1969, a very sweet nostalgia nonetheless engulfed me whilst viewing Ang Lee’s “Taking Woodstock.”
Don’t expect the familiar, iconic chords associated with the mother of all love-ins. There are several good sources for that, mastered and re-mastered ad infinitum. Rather, this is the back story, the whimsical and sentimentally naïve narrative that dwells behind the watershed event. Accepted as such, it is astute, informative and smartly understated.
Based on the coming-of-age memoir penned by Elliot Tiber with the help of Tom Monte, he is Elliot Teichberg before the name change, heir to the crumbling, about-to-be-foreclosed El Monaco Motel in Bethel, N.Y. Weird and struggling Mom and Dad have recalled their prodigal son to the shores of White Lake to save the day. Ah, happenstance.
At approximately that same moment in time, an odd synergy of suits, would-be concert promoters and Hippies are rebuffed from staging a music festival in Wallkill, N.Y. Elliot, who has risen to president of the ragtag Bethel Chamber of Commerce, finds himself in a powerful position. Okaying a venue for the consortium merely requires his rubber stamp.
Enters stage right by car and truck, and from the sky by helicopter, all manner of being befitting the era. True, on first blush some characterizations seem excessive. Then again, traveling in those times was more apt than not to put you in touch with more than one person a day who was “going through a lot of heavy changes, man…if you can dig it.”
Assuming you can, they are all represented here, the throng of idealists, music lovers and just big kids looking to have a blast…pausing in this fantasy way station before facing the inevitable realities they subconsciously know cannot be denied. Telling it with wide-eyed perspective, Elliot is part macher (big shot), part breathless observer.
Director Ang Lee, working from writer/producer James Schamus’s (“Brokeback Mountain”) script, chooses a wise path in an itinerary fraught with dilemmas. While he must in part shun the hyperbolic mottos of the period to avoid the pitfalls of cliché, fact is the 60’s was an epoch of verbiage, symbols and meanings. He holds and folds nicely.
Helping him anchor within the pageant of time the exciting goings-on are Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton as Elliot’s parents, Jake and Sonia Teichberg, respectively. To these hardworking, pogrom-imbued folk, Woodstock is but a hopeful field in the otherwise hard row they’ve had to hoe…a chance to reap a couple bucks.
What the screenplay is trying to say about Elliot’s relationship with his brooding, often curmudgeonly Mom and Dad is not always quite so clear. The same goes for Demetri Martin’s problematic portrayal of the accidental mover and shaker. It is either an exercise in subtlety or just a lack of experience that luckily seems to work as often as it doesn’t.
Tangential snippets about his gayness, delivered in curious allusion, have us wondering if the director is trying to make a more complex statement. Still, because he is adequately representative of innocent youth, Martin’s Elliot serves the story’s purpose. That he’s an unintentional hero pleases a sense of serendipity. But look elsewhere for standout acting.
Credit in that department goes to Liev Schreiber as Vilma, a former Marine turned cross-dresser/security guard who arrives on the scene and sells his/her protective services. Not only does Schreiber manage to make real this potentially over-the-top character, but in the same breath imparts some philosophical details about the cultural landscape.
Hard to figure, though, except perhaps as a stark contrast to the peace and love scenery that has been painted all around her, is Imelda Staunton’s neurotic battle-ax. While Elliot’s money-grubbing Mom exhibits the usual symptoms of one who has survived the Great Depression, there’s something else very wrong here, irksomely left unexplained.
Not quite so off-putting are the equally obscure motivations attributed to Henry Goodman’s Jake Teichberg, the long-suffering spouse who at least manages to have a few joyful beers with the invading hordes. It thus comes to mind that while all this parental baggage is important to the author, its value in telling the Woodstock tale is questionable.
Happily, it doesn’t deter Ang Lee from beautifully depicting, through superbly re-created scenes and adeptly spliced news footage, the wonderment of place, time and mood. Yes, there is little music. But for those who will most enjoy “Taking Woodstock,” odds are the tunes they’ll bring along in their hearts have never really stopped playing.
“Taking Woodstock,” rated R, is a Focus Features release directed by Ang Lee and stars Demetri Martin, Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman. Running time: 110 minutes
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