It's no accident that at the very beginning of the movie, the title shows up broken into three words, one on its own separate line: Taking. Wood. Stock. The immensely likeable comedian Demetri Martin plays Elliot Teichberg, a menschy young guy who is spending his summer at his parents' ramshackle motel in the Catskills in yet another attempt to stave off their foreclosure. He has a life back in NYC, sure, but his work as an interior designer and painter isn't going so well, and his friends are all leaving for San Francisco. Elliot, or Ellie as his parents call him, is the consummate Good Jewish Boy – he runs the local Chamber of Commerce, helps around the hotel, and withstands his Russian mother's browbeating (played by Vera Drake's Imelda Staunton).
It's only sheer luck and desperation that leads him to call the Woodstock folks after a nearby town decides they don't want a hippie invasion after all. The rest, as they say, is history, much to Elliot's bemusement. Obviously, though, the free love and plentiful drugs help grease the wheels of his own individuation, as the Summer of Love draws to a close and the darker era of Altamont and Manson creep closer.
Based on a memoir by Elliot Tiber (originally Teichberg) and Tom Monte, Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock has a lot crammed in its 121 minutes. The camera-work is, of course, gorgeous, from the verdant fields of upstate New York to Elliot's psychedelic experience that turns the ocean of concert-goers to an actual ocean, but by the third act, the hippie montages feel self-indulgent and distract from the juicier parts of the story – the people themselves. The hippies are a shorthand for the different and the strange that everyone in the small town around them feels.
Elliot, as we learn from a phone call that alludes to Stonewall and, a bit later, the appearance of Vilma, a transwoman who says she is a friend of a friend, is gay and probably not out to his family. (Tiber's memoir acknowledges he was closeted to his family at the time.) His friend Billy just got back from Vietnam and plays at PTSD but is obviously suffering, as he wonders if he should go on a second tour because "over in 'Nam, I'm fucking normal." When Elliot asked Vilma if his dad knows what she is, she simply says, "I know what I am. That does make it easier for everyone else." Even the townspeople turn against the Teichbergs and the Yasgurs, who own the land where Woodstock takes place, dropping anti-Semitic slurs against both families for their participation in the festival.
Then there are the threads picked up and dropped – why, for instance, an eccentric immigrant Jewish couple from Brooklyn would allow a bunch of arty theater people take up residence in their barn, and the extremely brief interlude with Elliot's sister, obviously not the favored child and neither seen nor mentioned after the siblings briefly meet in New York. Billy is briefly explored but ignored once he has a semi-epiphany in the mud that ends in a hug with his old buddy. And it's especially aggravating to see Mamie Gummer wasted in a barely-there role that's spent hiding under a giant floppy hat. Paul Dano's cameo as one of the best trip buddies on film, however, is well worth noting. (In his role in Gigantic earlier this year, Dano's character Brian and his brothers and father, celebrate Christmas by taking 'shrooms and running through the woods. Hmmmm. Coincidence?)
When I left the theater, I felt no more or less of a desire to romp in the mud to "Purple Haze" than I did before, but I was surprised at how much I liked this little movie. Demetri Martin, long the patron saint of awkward guys who do comedy and get lots of indie fan girls, is an excellent anchor for what is a somewhat unwieldy film. Although Staunton could be accused of overdoing the Minsk mamalah thing, a development later in the film sheds some welcome light on her character. And, I have to say again, Liev Schreiber definitely earned my respect for playing a transgender person with an elegance rarely seen in film today. There's not a wink or a nod in sight except at the very beginning when she flashes Elliot both the gun she has strapped to her thigh and the bulge in her underwear.
So before Wavy Gravy's peace police gave way to the hell of the Hell's Angels in Altamont, as the acid trips soured and turned all helter skelter, Woodstock left no one untouched, from the townspeople to Elliott, who is finally given leave to, you know, take stock.