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Dirty fucking hippies: (l-r) Garner, Martin and Dano in Taking Woodstock.

Bad Trip

By Laura Leon

Taking Woodstock

Directed by Ang Lee

I was at Woodstock, in a matter of speaking. That is, Woodstock came to me, in the wee hours of a muggy August night, 1969. I woke up with a start, feeling that something was off, and aware of a gentle murmur that definitely wasn’t the usual Berkshires crickets or the rush of the Housatonic River. Cautiously, I descended the stairs, where I saw my middle-age mother, clad in her cotton nightdress, standing in the front door. I knew from experience, by the tension in her posture, that she was about to do battle; and when I stood behind her, I saw her quarry. Scores of hippies were camped out on our front yard and that of our neighbors on either side. Our house was just off the main drag, so it must have seemed an ideal spot to rest en route to the Catskills. Unfortunately for these music lovers, they hadn’t counted on my mother, who sent them off in a tirade of invective and choice oaths. I was terrified, but suitably impressed that Mom wasn’t cowed. “Woodstock, my ass,” and “dirty, drug-smoking trash” were her underlining philosophy.

That kind of fear and loathing is evident in Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, a movie not so much about the concert itself but about the efforts of a young businessman, Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin) to help promote it, and possibly get his parents’ dumpy motel, the el Monaco, out of debt. Elliot’s dad Jake (Henry Goodman) and mom Sonia (Imelda Staunton) are frumpy Jewish immigrants, hard working and unemotional, and their son’s doe-eyed devotion is lost on them. Elliott is supposed to be an interior designer with big dreams of moving to the city, but he’s also a naïf, virginal and clean with respect to drugs—that is, until Woodstock opens his eyes to all sorts of possibilities. It’s a bit too much like Almost Famous, without the sharp focus.

Lee floods his movie with colorful characters, such as Vilma (Lieb Schreiber), the Korean War-vet (turned transvestite) in charge of security, and Billy Hawkins (Emile Hirsch), Elliott’s school-days buddy whose tour of ’Nam still resonates in the hallucinatory flashbacks he experiences. Then there are the “everyman and woman” real people of the town of White Lake, who react with glee when the town of Bethel turns down the concert promoters request for a permit, and are justly horrified when Elliott offers them his own permit to put on a show.

The anger and resentment of the townspeople is touched upon ever so lightly, as if Lee doesn’t wish to imply that they were being pigheaded—or, more likely, Lee doesn’t want to enter the murkier waters of human behavior. Time and again he refrains from delving into anything meatier than a CGI generated acid trip, leaving Taking Woodstock in a sort of vacuum of humanity. Sure, there are masterfully executed sequences showing thousands of people trekking through the byways and hillsides of the Catskills, sliding in mud and experiencing free love, but none of that resonates with anything meaningful. Even Elliot’s “wide-eyed in Wonderland” shtick is dealt with in a perfunctory way, with him being taken in by an acid-tripping hippie couple (Kelli Garner and Paul Dano), and then waking up next to the carpenter he’s been giving the shy eye to. Trouble is, we can’t be sure if they consummated their hinted-at connection, or there just wasn’t anywhere else for either to crash. A late development involving Sonia’s hidden machinations feels tacked on, almost like it belongs in a separate movie.

Like its protagonist, Taking Woodstock is amiable and without purpose, other than to cash in on a cultural phenomena. In Elliott’s case, he wants to fix up the motel so that he can go on to live his own life. In Lee’s, it’s to milk the cash cow of the whole “remember Woodstock” craze, and to give its misty-eyed audiences the idea that the beat goes on.

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