Capturing What Festival Meant To A Generation

'Taking Woodstock' *** ( 3 Stars)

August 28, 2009|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

Maybe Woodstock, the event, has been glorified all out of proportion over the past four decades. Maybe three days of mud, pharmaceuticals and chaos couldn't have been as wonderful as the myth would have us believe, no matter how great the music playing in the background was. And with that many people there, how many could hear the music anyway?

But Ang Lee cares nothing about that, and good for him. His "Taking Woodstock" is a love letter to the time, and the period, and the legend that has grown around both. Maybe it's all too wonderful to be true, but that's OK. If "Taking Woodstock" is a fantasy, then it's a most benevolent one, and more power to it.

In theory, this movie is about one young guy and how the festival changed his life. Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin) is a recent college grad, stuck with his immigrant parents running a dive up in the Catskills, a run-down "resort" where all the improvements are coming next year and, in the meantime, guests get charged an extra buck for a blanket. It's all desperately quaint and quirky. Elliot wants out but doesn't think his parents can make it without him.

But Elliot has an ace in the hole, one about to reap dividends that will endure for decades. He's got a permit to hold a music festival in his hometown of White Lake, for which he paid $1. When he reads in the paper about how this big music festival got kicked out of nearby Wallkill, where the locals wanted no part of all these hippies who would doubtless show up, a light bulb goes on over his head. Why not invite the music-festival folks to move the gig to White Lake? Heck, maybe he'll even be able to rent out a few rooms.

Yeah, just a few.

The rest, of course, is history - about half-a-million people's worth.

But Lee's film is not about music, or politics or even about Elliot Teichberg. True, he's the central character, and the spirit of Woodstock proves particularly liberating, allowing him to stand up to his parents and accept some basic truths about himself that he'd long been struggling to hide. Liev Schreiber, in a hilarious turn as a transvestite ex-Marine in charge of security, is there to drop hints about certain roads the movie could have traveled, had Lee been willing to let more than a momentary darkness intrude on his film. But for the real details behind those truths, you'll have to read Elliot Tiber's book, on which the character of Teichberg and the movie is based and from which it takes its name.

What Lee is interested in, and what he has captured so enticingly, is what Woodstock meant to the people who were there and to the generation that embraced it as the high point of their lives. It's as if Woodstock, itself, were a drug, and taking it was the best thing a person could do. People are kind and unfailingly altruistic. Ugliness rears its head only occasionally, and then passes by, never to be heard from again. (In Tiber's book, ugly reality, especially in the form of some bigoted, intolerant townspeople, proves far more intrusive.)

Martin, unfortunately, proves too bland to do much with Teichberg's character, essentially gliding through the film without making much of an impression. By comparison, the charismatic Emile Hirsch is wasted as an emotionally scarred Vietnam vet who finds the festival positively therapeutic; it's too bad the two actors couldn't have switched roles. And as Teichberg's parents, Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman are a little too caricatured for comfort.

The two most welcome presences are both key peripheral figures. As Max Yasgur, the hog farmer who rented out his property and became a counterculture hero, Eugene Levy is the adult we all wish we could have known, both wise and tolerant, never overplaying his hand or undermining his sense of self-confidence. He finds his happy match in Michael Lang, the long-haired, laid-back promoter who put Woodstock together. As Lang, Jonathan Groff never loses his smile and never breaks a sweat. He's confident but never arrogant.

There are people who will hate this movie, complain that it's a whitewash, that it glorifies drug use and sanctions irresponsibility. But they're not seeing the full story. Doubtless, the film pulls its punches, and Lee could have made a more trenchant film, certainly a more resonant one, if he'd taken on a demon or two. Yet "Taking Woodstock" is a film that embraces life, in all its quirky variations and simply refuses to see that as bad. For three days in August 1969, it argues, that's what Woodstock was all about. One can excuse Ang Lee for thinking that's a time, and a mind-set, worth celebrating.

MPAA rating: R (graphic nudity, some sexual content, drug use and language)

Running time: 1:50 minutes

Starring Demetri Martin (Elliot Teichberg), Imelda Staunton (Sonia Teichberg) and Emile Hirsch (Billy). A Focus Features release. Directed by Ang Lee

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