Feelin' groovy: ‘Taking Woodstock’ is a safe trip back to the garden
All summer, we’ve been subjected to big thinking about the 40th anniversary of Woodstock - personal essays, florid reminiscences, and roving explorations that ask, “What Did It All Mean?’’ Until we get the inevitable HBO miniseries (Laura Linney as Grace Slick?) we have Ang Lee’s “Taking Woodstock,’’ or what I’ve come to think of as “The Muppets Take Yasgur’s Farm.’’
Lee has gone for shaggy comedy. Some of it is funny. Some of it just sits there. Nothing so specific as sex happens, just a lot of writhing, fumbling, and waking up beside a stranger the next morning. There’s an acid trip in a VW bus that you could probably air on Nickelodeon.
So the drugs are cute. The mudslides are cute. The naked boys and girls are cute. Even the kid who’s just come home from Vietnam woozy with chemically enhanced post-traumatic stress (Emile Hirsch) has cheeks that are dying for a pinch. When we finally see the concert it’s from a mile away and it undulates like a Day-Glo volcano. This is as safe and sweet a movie as you could make about America’s sex-drugs-and-rock ’n’ roll-est event.
Lee and his longtime screenwriter and producer, James Schamus, aren’t interested in the concert so much as the impressions the era left. Their distanced approach has its backhanded merits. For one thing, it feels subversive. Instead of pious commemoration or epic worship we get an episode of “That (Almost) ’70s Show.’’
The movie focuses on how young Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin) haphazardly managed to bring a homeless music festival to his Catskills hamlet and how the arrival of thousands of hippies saved the shoddy motel run by his parents, stodgy Holocaust survivors from Russia played by Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman, two Brits. Elliot has been living in Manhattan, and this is to be the summer he emancipates himself from the expectation that he’ll run the motel. He wants to move to San Francisco and live as the gay man his parents don’t officially know he is.
The story is based on a memoir the son wrote under the name Elliot Tiber. (Someone made the unfortunate choice to keep the book’s punning title.) Schamus distills to a casual phone call the material on Tiber’s involvement in the Stonewall riots the previous month. Instead, he lays out the Teichbergs’ financial stress (the bank is ready to foreclose on the motel), the drolly staged town council meetings, and the negotiations among a bunch of hippies, their lawyers, and a progressive farmer named Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy), who provided the land for the concert.
The Teichbergs’ motel is ground zero for the festival organizers, their friends, and whoever else stops by. And the best scenes in the movie arise from the initial comic clash and eventual harmony between Elliot’s parents and the kids who turn their fleabag into a zoo. Quiet Mr. Teichberg runs the bar, forming a friendship with the strapping transvestite (Liev Schreiber) who offers his security services. His wife stomps around the property poking the bushes where kids fool around, turns one room into three, charging full price, bellowing, braying, and berating the whole time.
Where Goodman is warm and reserved, Staunton is unhinged. Hers is a performance of broad, shameless strokes. If this truly is a Muppet Movie, Staunton is every member of Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. By the time she wakes atop a pile of cash, the movie and the actor have crossed over into Jewish grotesque. You don’t need Janis Joplin when you have this.
Staunton, at least, is a vibrant alternative to the comparatively somnambulant younger people around her. Martin is a clever comedian with a show on Comedy Central, in which he plays instruments and thinks about words. He’s Max Fisher from “Rushmore’’ as a grad student troubadour. Putting his uptight drollery at the center of a movie is admirable but neither the camera nor the circumstances bring much out of him. A lot of this is in Schamus’s writing. Elliot is not a character so much as a window looking onto yesteryear.
Indeed, he’s a lot like the characters played by Tobey Maguire in Lee’s “The Ice Storm’’ and “Ride With the Devil’’ - boys trying to figure out who and what to be during major American upheavals (Watergate and the Civil War, respectively). In “Taking Woodstock,’’ the filmmaker seems better able to relate to the grown-ups - the Teichbergs and Yasgur - since they already know who they are.
Elliot, at least, is in the process of finding himself, heading to 1969 San Francisco. I’d rather see a more serious movie about what happens when he gets there.