Anyone's reaction to Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock will rely in part on one's generational background. Any viewer who is currently between the age of 50 and 80 is old enough to have heard of the generation-defining concert and might be more likely to find themselves caught up in the romanticism of it.
But the movie, which centers its sketchy, Woodstock account on an unlikely instrumental player -- Elliot Teichberg played by Demetri Martin - starts off slow. After about a half hour the two biggest questions are 1.) whether the movie is going to generate any worthwhile plot momentum, and 2,) whether a viewer has enough patience to stick around long enough to see if that is ever going to happen.
Based on Elliot Tiber's Woodstock memoir of the same name, the first half hour shows Teichberg working at his Jewish parents' motel, trying to save it from being foreclosed by the bank and needing something good to happen. Because Teichberg is every bit as unassuming as the actor who portrays him - Martin has only three other minor movie credits and is otherwise better known as a comedy writer and (hard to believe) a stand-up comedian - the focus on his character does not really provide any traction in the minds and the hearts of movie-goers.
Thankfully, the Teichberg's fortune changes, and for that matter the movie's as well. Elliot takes advantage of the concert promoters' loss of the original, planned site and offers his parents' motel near White Lake, N.Y. With a base of operation worked out, the promoters quickly acquire the famous Yasgur farm and begin preparing the property for a concert that would draw a half-million hippies to the conservative area.
It's during the preparation for Woodstock and then the actual three-day concert - the last two-thirds of the movie - that the plot not only begins to get its footing but also pulls the viewers into a pleasant immersion of the free-spirited counterculture that flocked in mass to the White Lake area. Taking Woodstock, however, does not get you there through the on-stage prowess of Jimi Hendrix, Santana, Janis Joplin or any of the other performers. In fact, the closest you get to hearing the Woodstock songs is in a far away electric drone, heard while Elliot wades his way through the sea of Hippies, marijuana smoke and 1960 philosophizing. It's too far away from the concert stage to really enjoy the legendary acts.
While many remember Woodstock for the music, far less understand what the invasion of 500,000 anything-goes hippies meant to such a conservative community. The conflict with the locals and the transformation that takes place are the heart of the film and give Taking Woodstock one of its greatest attributes.
The strongest performances come from Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton, who portray Elliot's parents, Jake and Sonia Teichberg. Despite the windfall for the motel, Sonia consistently goes through the film with an acerbic demeanor and is easily irritated by visitors and locals alike. Meanwhile, Jake symbolized the transformation of some town's people in attitude and perception as a result of the mass of youthful visitors. The movie's most hilarious scene shows the couple completely beside themselves with euphoric silliness after consuming some hash brownies offered to them.
The most curious casting is Liev Schreiber, who plays a cross-dressing concert security guard. Most of the characters exude the era's hippie cool or the conservatism of small town America, neither of which require any tour-de-force performances. They are just required to be who they are, and thereby preserves the intended tenor designed to recreate the day when 500,000 young people descended on a farm to listen to some live rock and roll.Taking Woodstock, a 120-minute film, is rated R for language, drug use and nudity.