There’s plenty of mud in Ang Lee’s “Taking Woodstock,” but not a whole lot of grit. What’s meant to be a behind-the-scenes peek at the legendary rock concert more often than not comes off like one of those classroom films that presents an exceedingly bland and cleaned-up version of some historical event like the Civil War or Columbus’ voyage.
Comedian Demetri Martin stars as Eliot Teichberg (who co-wrote the book of the same name as “Eliot Tiber,” a name he’s sometimes called in the film, although we never find out when he uses which sobriquet), a closeted gay man who devotes much of his time helping his parents keep their shabby upstate New York motel in business.
In the summer of 1969, he reads about a group of rock promoters who’ve been having a hard time finding a location for their three-day music festival; since Eliot is the president of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce, he invites the promoters to town to see if the location will work out for them. In comes a helicopter bearing Eliot’s childhood pal Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff, androgynously dreamy in a “Hair”-road-company kind of way); once Michael checks out the rolling hills of the dairy farm owned by Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy), he’s sold on the idea.
The smartest move by Lee and screenwriter James Schamus (adapting the book by Tiber and Tom Monte) is to avoid attempting to reenact the Woodstock concert itself. Eliot — and, by extension, the camera — never gets all that close to the main stage, so the big show exists mainly as white noise somewhere in the background.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers haven’t done too much to fill the foreground. Eliot is conceived as something of a blank-slate character, and Martin isn’t engaging enough to give anything but a blank-slate performance. We see the townspeople turn on Eliot because of the massive influx of hippies, we see Eliot finally break down and make out with the hunky stagehand he’s flirted with for weeks, we see Eliot struggle with his difficult parents, but he remains personality-free and inscrutable throughout.
The central void created by Martin does at least give supporting players like Liev Schreiber (as an cross-dressing, ex-Marine security chief) and Mamie Gummer (as a pragmatic concert organizer) some scene-stealing moments. Unfortunately, Lee lets the talented Imelda Staunton (“Vera Drake”) go buck wild as Eliot’s shrewish Yiddische mamma.
Speaking of Staunton’s performance, can we please ban the “old people accidentally eat pot brownies” scene until someone figures out a way to make it funny? This moment doesn’t work any better in “Taking Woodstock” than it did in “Transformers 2.” And Eliot’s LSD-dropping sequence ranks as one of the screen’s silliest acid trips since Jackie Gleason blew his mind in “Skidoo.”
There’s no shortage of books, CDs and movies celebrating the 40th anniversary of Woodstock this summer; if you’re feeling nostalgic, avail yourself to the real thing and not this unengaging bit of fake hippie posing.
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