Starring Demetri Martin, Emile Hirsch, Henry Goodman, Imelda Staunton. Directed by Ang Lee. Rated R for graphic nudity, some sexual content, drug use and language. 110 minutes.
This summer marks the fortieth anniversary of two Earth-shaking events. First was the manned landing on the Moon. A few weeks later was Woodstock – which actually took place not in Woodstock, New York but the nearby rural community of Bethel – offering “3 days of peace and music” with some 500,000 people in attendance.
TAKING WOODSTOCK is a somewhat fictionalized version of a key bystander to the whole process. Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin) helps his parents run the El Monaco Motel, which has fallen on hard times. When Elliot hears that the Town of Wallkill had effectively banned the concert in Woodstock he contacts the promoters and invites them to Bethel, where he has a permit for a small classical music festival.
His peripheral participation with the concert, which he barely gets to see, proves liberating. The money they earn help his parents pay off a mortgage. The invasion of hundreds of thousands of hippies brings the era of free love and casual drug use to this sleepy backwater, as Elliot gets to stop being the dutiful son and figure out who he wants to be.
We see none of the stars who performed nor do we hear their music. The concert is the backdrop to the story of Elliott and the people around him, with their reaction to it a test of their openness. For many of the locals it brings out the worst. Not only do their ostracize Elliot, but antisemitism rears its head, which is ironic given how many Jews reside in the Catskills.
Yet others see this as an opportunity to expand their horizons. Of course they’re making money as well, but it’s touching to see a group of old ladies making sandwiches to feed the hordes or watching Elliot’s father Jake (Henry Goodman in the film’s most delightful performance) out on the highway with a whistle and flashlight directing the bumper to bumper traffic. A state trooper, who says he had hoped to club some hippies, finds himself moved by the spirit of peace and love. There’s also the security chief (Liev Schreiber) an ex-Marine who dresses in drag and is accepted on his – or her – own terms.
The most troubled character in the film is Elliot’s mother Sonia (Imelda Staunton) and one wishes we got a bit more of her backstory. Obviously someone who grew up in terrible poverty and who has endured much before arriving in America, she is miserly and somewhat selfish. We get to see the person inside when Jake and Sonia eat some marijuana-laced brownies and she lets herself go, possibly for the first time in her life. Jake gets his moment where he puts his life in perspective and urges Elliot to follow his dreams. It’s a shame Sonia didn’t get a similar scene.
“Taking Woodstock” is less about the concert than about the spirit of the concert, what the people involved hoped for and what they achieved. If you want to experience the concert you can watch the 1970 “Woodstock” movie. This one is about what it all meant.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.