Ed reviews "Taking Woodstock" 

Before watching Ang Lee's gentle Taking Woodstock, you should know what the film isn't. First, it isn't a concert movie. In fact, our only glimpses of the stage are from far away. A few well-known tunes pop up briefly in the background, but that's all. Second, it isn't a sweeping look at the legendary 1969 festival and its social/spiritual/cultural impact on society. There are plenty of documentaries that cover that. Third, it isn't a detailed behind-the-scenes look at how the promoters staged the show. It addresses some of that, but that's not the focus of the movie.

Taking Woodstock is about a nice Jewish boy trying to keep his mom and dad's failing business alive. Along the way, he becomes one of many pivotal figures in making the event a reality. More importantly, he has a hell of a weekend and grows a little as a person. Little, by the way, is the operative word for the film. Taking Woodstock may deal with one of the biggest events of the last century, but it's a little movie concerning some individuals on the periphery of the festival. It doesn't dissect Woodstock, it simply attends it and invites us to come along. Nice. Little. Remember, four stars now equals a "B."

Ang Lee, the man behind Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, the first Hulk movie, Brokeback Mountain and Lust, Caution, establishes and mostly maintains a laid-back mood -- about two beers and/or a joint's worth. Plenty of things happen in the story, but the filmmaker never amps up the drama, he just meanders along. There's a quasi-Robert Altman feel at times.

Demetri Martin plays Elliot Teichberg, the focal character in an ocean of characters. Teichberg wrote the book on which the film is based under the name Elliot Tiber. Go figure. In New York, Elliot is a soft-spoken, but assertive gay painter/designer involved in the arts scene. In the Catskills, where he's trying to help his immigrant folks (Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton), Elliot is a good boy who stays in the closet and the head of the town council for tiny White Lake, N.Y. He isn't very colorful, which bothers the hell out of some reviewers. I thought the fact that he was a regular guy and not a dynamic movie character was part of the film's appeal.

After the failure of a number of amusingly grandiose plans to save his folks' dilapidated motel, The El Monaco, Elliot is desperate. Then he reads that a big music festival booked in a nearby town just got booted by locals fearful of a hippie invasion. Elliot contacts the organizers and lets them know he has a permit for an annual teeny-weeny festival in his town and invites them to come and talk. History ensues.

I liked most of the cast, even the ones playing stereotypes (Staunton as a force-of-nature-Jewish mother, Emile Hirsch as a whacked-out Vietnam war vet). Check out Jonathan Groff as famed Woodstock organizer Michael Lang -- does he look like Charles in Charge era Willie Ames or what? Liev Schreiber plays Vilma, a tough ex-Marine in a dress and a long blond wig who handles security. He's as enjoyable here as John Lithgow's similarly unusual, but grounded character is in The World According to Garp.

My favorite scene involves Elliot taking an acid trip with a sweet, spacey couple (Paul Dano and Kelli Garner) that comes closer to capturing the LSD experience than any other film I've viewed. The trip starts with Elliot feeling a bit anxious and impatient, then things get tactile, and eventually the visuals start. You can feel the warmth.

Taking Woodstock is a charming, modest little character piece set near the biggest party ever. Don't forget though, Woodstock the historical event is way over there and Taking Woodstock is at least a hill or two away from the epicenter, just like the majority of the visitors were.

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Ed Johnson-Ott

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