You almost wouldn't know, from Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock, that a music concert happened 40 years ago in Bethel, New York. The movie, based on Elliot Tiber's memoir, Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert, and a Life remains almost entirely on the periphery of that watershed festival. Music is occasionally heard, drifting across fields and forests to reach The El Monaco Motel, a shabby, rundown establishment operated (barely) by the Teichberg family in White Lake, NY. Sonia (Imelda Staunton) and Jake Teichberg (Henry Goodman) are Russian Jews; she's penny-pinching and greedy, chasing off potential customers with unkempt rooms and extra fees for towels. Jake putters around the property -- if he's doing any maintenance, it doesn't much show. Their son Elliot (Demetri Martin) is a closeted interior decorator, forced to move back in with his parents to help them run their motel, which is on the verge of bankruptcy. Elliot is also the president of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce, and the organizer of an annual arts festival at which the performances consist mainly of records played over the motel loudspeaker.
When the nearby town of Wallkill pulls the permit for a music festival, Elliott gets the grand idea of hosting it himself. He rings up Woodstock Ventures, introduces Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) to dairy farmer Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy, a hoot), and the rest is history. The El Monaco is soon the bustling headquarters of Woodstock Ventures, and within weeks, a steady stream of hippies are making their way to the fabled "Aquarian Exposition." The locals, depicted as a provincial, insular lot, are none to happy about all the visitors -- they practically greet them with pitchforks and torches (although eventually, there are sandwiches).
Somewhere in there, a concert happened. But Taking Woodstock, directed by Ang Lee and written by James Schamus, isn't really about that. It's about Elliot, and his parents, and the intersection of commerce and art, the uneasy alliance of idealism and capitalism. It's mostly about how Elliott gets his groove on, and lets his hair down, and blooms (a little) among the flower children.
Lee directs Taking Woodstock in a decidedly old fashioned way. It pretty much feels like a 1960s movie in its pacing, and looks like one too. Lee captures the mood and look of the festival -- well, the outer rings of the festival -- frequently evoking Michael Wadleigh's 1970 documentary Woodstock as the movie follows Elliot through hippie-clogged roads and muddy hills. The movie meanders and drifts fairly aimlessly and inconsequentially, an episodic collage (including several scenes rendered in split screen, as in Wadleigh's doc) of groovy and not so groovy stuff going down. Although there are plenty of reminders that something big is going on in the background, Taking Woodstock is a very small film, a breezy, ironic comedy with a little darkness around the edges. It doesn't so much get back to the garden as get lost -- contentedly, it must be said -- in the weeds. Lee and Schamus don't seem to really have a point to make in Taking Woodstock, and so they don't.
Martin, a standup comedian, gives an extremely low key performance -- Elliot is the center of the story, but he's barely there as a character. Maybe that's on purpose -- Elliot doesn't really know who he is, so we don't know him either. The filmmakers want to make something of Elliot's coming out, but Martin is too wan a presence to carry that much narrative and metaphorical weight (there are awkward allusions to the Stonewall riots, which happened only months earlier, and to connections between the Age of Aquarius and the dawning of the gay rights movement). Vilma (Liev Schreiber), a burly, ex-Marine transvestite who wanders into the El Monaco and stays on as director of security, serves as a gay confidant to Elliot. Schreiber plays against stereotype, and makes Vilma a macho man in a pink dress. On the one hand, Schreiber's portrayal is strong and interesting enough to make Vilma substantial and vivid despite the underwritten script. On the other hand, Vilma is not the only potentially interesting character to get pushed to the periphery while the film makes too much of money-grubbing Sonia and anxious Elliot. Others seem to have been left largely on the cutting room floor, like Elliot's pal Billy (Emile Hirsch), a vet who returned from Vietnam burned-out and deeply disturbed. Billy is so sketchy, and is given so little screen time that he seems more cliché than character. Groff makes a strong impression despite relatively little screen time. He portrays promoter Lang as an almost comically calm, angelic creature, a curly-haired hippie knight who travels by helicopter and by horse, and a shrewd capitalist-idealist who rides in and saves the El Monaco, for what its worth, and pulls off one of the more fabled events in recent history.
Taking Woodstock is an enjoyable little film that only hints at the bigger story. Sometimes, focusing on a small story gives a better sense of large and momentous events -- we can understand the forest better when we pay attention to the individual trees. That was surely the goal in Taking Woodstock, which looks at a single detail (and a potential future question on Jeopardy!) -- What Catskills motel served as HQ for the Woodstock Festival? -- to tell the tale of a generational groundshift. But the focus of Taking Woodstock is a little too tight, and the rest of the picture a little too diffuse. Taking Woodstock tells the little story -- a little story that's quirky and fun and modestly interesting -- but kind of misses the big picture.