Taking Woodstock is another tiny tugboat flying the freak flag of baby boomer mythology, but it's got an unusual captain in Ang Lee, who can't quite keep it from capsizing into swirls of colorful mandalas, nostalgia, groovy tunes and, of course, naked hippie chicks! You shoulda been there, man!
We've heard this record before, and worn down its grooves, but at least the movie finds a fresh protagonist in geeky, inhibited art lover Elliot Teichberg (Demitri Martin). He's so devoted to his downtrodden parents and their dilapidated Catskills "resort" motel that he moves from Manhattan back to sleepy Bethel, N.Y., and even heads the chamber of commerce just to help. Elliot isn't a hippie, but he lets an avant-garde theater troupe live in the barn, and when a nearby town rejects plans for a big outdoor rock festival, he's quick to welcome hordes of long-hairs with open arms. This influx of peace, love and music collides head-on with the previous generation's bitterness, personified by Ellie's mother (Imelda Staunton), a miserable, persecuted Depression survivor who squeezes pennies till they bleed. She's major buzzkill, as is her sad-sack husband, who shambles around like a broken mule. Some of the adults are hipper, like dairy farmer Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy), who lets the festival use his grazing land for cheap, but plays hardball when it's clear that hundreds of thousands of kids are en route.
Lee never gets close to the stage; we never see the stars, or have to see anyone playing Janis or Jimi. Instead, we get an assortment of cliché comedy oddballs. There's the shell-shocked 'Nam vet (Emile Hirsch) and the tough transvestite ex-Marine (Liev Schreiber), which would be OK if the laughs weren't so forced. All this wackiness gives way to noodling introspection once Elliot meets a couple in a VW bus, engages in a three-way nude romp, and learns that LSD allows amazing cosmic insights that only come after gazing into a tapestry for hours. Hazily, Elliot pops his shaggy mop from the van in time to watch the gyrating masses down the hillside dissolve into a swirling vortex of twinkling purple light reaching for the heavens.
Far out, man.
Lost in all this boomer self-aggrandizement is the notion that, in a little more than a decade, many of these same kids will be racing up corporate ladders in order to buy better coffee tables on which to snort high-grade blow.
Maybe the most interesting character is Woodstock organizer Michael Lang (Jonathon Groff), a huckster bedecked in the leather-fringed vest of a prophet, riding around on a white horse like some neo-Cochise seeking a celestial happy hunting ground right here in the humble, mud-soaked earth. Michael hints at his future, a knotty tangle of lawsuits, and a grand idea of taking his messianic vision out West for a truly free concert headlined by the Rolling Stones. We all know how that turned out.
Showing at the Landmark Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].