Ang Lee’s “Taking Woodstock” is as unlikely and enjoyable a memento of that long-gone moment in the age of Aquarius as we’re likely to find in this 40th anniversary year of the epochal rock festival.
Based on a memoir by writer Elliot Tiber (whose name was Teichberg when the events in the film occurred), the film celebrates one lone little man with the vision and the nerve to seize a moment and help make Woodstock happen. Without Teichberg, there might not have been a Woodstock – as simple as that.
Yet Lee’s film isn’t a Woodstock movie per se. Though he recreates great swaths of the sprawling, fantastical festival, he’s not looking to recreate the Woodstock experience. Rather, this is a backstage story, a personal tale that happens to be set against three days of peace and music.
Teichberg (played with deadpan restraint by comedian Demetri Martin) is a mild-mannered would-be artist in the summer of 1969 when the film begins. He lives in Greenwich Village (and apparently was present for the Stonewall Riot). But while the film delves into his own questions about his sexuality, that’s not what “Taking Woodstock” is about either.
Teichberg spends virtually all of his time in the tiny town of Bethel, N.Y.; his parents own a tiny, dingy motel, the El Monaco, in nearby White Lake. He’s the president of the local Chamber of Commerce, and approves local permits – issuing himself one for his annual chamber music festival (which, in the past, consisted of Teichberg playing chamber music recordings over a loudspeaker system).
His parents are Holocaust survivors (Henry Goodman, Imelda Staunton); his father also runs a roofing business, while his grumbling drudge of a mother squeezes every penny she can out of the decrepit motel.
When he reads in the local paper that nearby Wallkill has refused the Woodstock festival a permit, Elliot acts impulsively and calls Michael Lang (Jonathon Groff), one of the festival’s promoters. Lang shows up in a helicopter – and after a meeting with Elliot and local dairy farmer Max Yasgur, Lang and Elliot agree to shift Elliot’s chamber-music-festival permit to the Woodstock festival.
Initially, Elliot’s parents are overjoyed – the festival’s staff will be headquartered at the El Monaco, providing more income than the motel has had in years. But as the snowballing phenomenon nears, the townspeople panic at the influx of hippies – and even Elliot’s parents freak out at having every square inch of their property occupied.
But this is truly Elliot’s story. As Martin plays him, Elliot is a guy stuck in his life, looking for a way to change things – to launch himself in a direction he perhaps can’t even imagine. Suddenly he finds himself as the point person for a massive cultural event, the go-to guy for everything that anyone needs.
Lee’s films have always been about repressed emotion and its effect on those who keep their feelings in. In Elliot’s case, it’s the blend of his stunted professional life and his closeted personal life. He’s in his 30s, still tied to his parents, cut off from the counterculture revolution that’s happening around him – until it lands in his backyard.
If Lee descends into Aquarian cliché, it’s only near the end, when Elliot decides to go see the concerts themselves, once they begin. Wandering across the packed meadow in the dark, he ends up instead in the back of a VW van with a couple of ambisexual hippies (Paul Dano, Kelli Garner), who give him a hit of acid and pull him into a threesome. There’s also a predictable sequence in which Elliot’s uptight parents accidentally eat a bunch of hash brownies. Always good for a cheap laugh – but it’s a cheap laugh nonetheless.
Still, “Taking Woodstock” is gentle and insightful, a character comedy whose warmth and willingness to embrace the past is tempered by the jaundiced view of 40 years later. As retrospectives have been ever so willing to point out this month, Woodstock was preceded by the Manson gang’s slaughters – and followed by the Rolling Stones’ debacle at Altamont.
Critics whose agenda mainly consists of debunking the ’60s have spent four decades trying to point that out – that this amazing moment of cultural upheaval in a Catskills meadow was bracketed by its karmic opposites, as though the one zeroes out the other.
But as Ang Lee shows in the enjoyable “Taking Woodstock,” this festival was a unique event unto itself – easily denigrated, never duplicated, still a shining blip on the radar of the time. And this film puts it into a context few critics are willing to give it.