Gentle, genial and about as memorable as a mild reefer high, “Taking Woodstock” takes a backdoor approach to revisit the landmark musical weekend through the antics and efforts of some of the people who made it happen. A sort of let’s-put-on-a-show summer-camp lark for director Ang Lee after the dramatic rigors of “Brokeback Mountain” and “Lust, Caution,” the picture serves up intermittent pleasures but is too raggedy and laid-back for its own good, its images evaporating nearly as soon as they hit the screen. Set for release in August on the 40th anniversary of the event, the Focus release looks like a mild B.O. contender.
Completely endorsing the sanctified view of Woodstock as the one, brief, shining moment of the Age of Aquarius before it all got painted black four months later at Altamont, James Schamus’ script focuses rather too much on how the experience liberated and transformed local fellow Elliot Teichberg, who, under the name Elliot Tiber, wrote the book that inspired the film. Teichberg played a crucial role in making the festival happen at all, having stepped in when the original permit was revoked to contact event producer Michael Lang and provide a base of operation at his parents’ ramshackle motel.
Given the film’s vast canvas and ambition to provide a kaleidoscopic portrait of a generational movement, Elliot’s personal issues — his feelings of responsibility to his immigrant parents, closeted gay status and general behavioral uptightness — seem unduly magnified in relation to everything else that’s going on. As played by comedian Demetri Martin, Elliot (who in real life was 34 at the time, older than the “generation” in question) is a mild-mannered, unassertive guy without much electricity as a central screen presence. In the role’s conception and casting, Elliot is clearly patterned after Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock in “The Graduate,” but the effect isn’t remotely the same.
Elliot — who’s returned to the Catskills from his career as a painter/designer in New York to help bail his parents out with mortgage problems on their dilapidated El Monaco Motel — has no idea what he’s getting into when he uses his influence to greenlight a local “music and arts festival.” A counterculture theater company occupies his parents’ barn but, as soon as cagey producer Lang (newcomer Jonathan Groff, in a very effective turn) shows up, the hippie invasion begins in earnest; the boost in tourism even inspires Mom and Pop (Brit thesps Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton) to spruce up the motel.
Although some local opposition still tries to block the festival, there’s no stopping the tide once dairy farmer Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy) opens up his 600-acre property. A crude mob attempt to extort protection money from the Teichbergs is nipped in the bud by a macho ex-Marine in a dress and blond wig (a nice turn by Liev Schreiber), embittered Vietnam vet Billy (Emile Hirsch) tries to figure out how to reconcile with all this peace and love stuff, and Elliot dares to publicly express his affection for a hunky construction worker.
Despite being temporally defined by the run-up to the fest and the weekend itself, the pic has a formless, unstructured feel, as its attention jumps from incident to incident in almost random fashion. Some distantly heard music serves notice that Woodstock itself has begun, but the stage is only ever glimpsed from atop a faraway hill. The musical performances are clearly not the subject of the film, but there’s no denying that their absence makes “Taking Woodstock” feel oddly incomplete; the table is set, but the meal never gets served.
Instead, Lee delivers a couple of setpieces intended to convey the magnitude and essence of the moment. The first involves a long ride by Elliot on a police motorcycle that slowly proceeds through a mass of vehicles and humanity on the road leading to the concert site; it’s a lovely, visually overflowing scene, marked by an almost eerie sense of calm and peacefulness, and one that would have been welcome at considerably greater length. The other is a climactic acid trip taken by Elliot in the company of two comically mellow hippies (Paul Dano, Kelli Garner) that allows Elliot to view the landscape of 500,000 people below him as undulating waves of humanity.
Inclined more to personal than societal politics, the film keeps the parade of history in the background (the moon landing, Vietnam and Middle East tensions are glimpsed on television). Other than the oddly extended attention devoted to the harsh irascibility of Elliot’s unbendingly greedy mother, pic is pleasant enough on a moment-to-moment basis, but the separate sketches never coalesce into anything like a full group portrait.
Convincingly scruffy thesps look like the cast of the “Hair” revival multiplied by hundreds, and the period re-creation is credible, both in fashions and speech, with a couple of exceptions in the latter case.