Directed by Ang Lee
No, I wasn’t at Woodstock, though one of my editors was involved in cutting the film, so you might say I was an early viewer of the dailies and the rough cut, as well as the finished film. And although “Woodstock” the film became a cultural landmark, over the years the film that had the most to say to me about the festival was “A Walk on the Moon,” with Diane Lane, Viggo Mortensen and Liev Schreiber, who by coincidence is also in “Taking Woodstock,” though this time as a cross-dressing ex-Marine security guard. And he is without doubt the very best thing in the movie. And when a peripheral character, cross-dressing or not, is the very best thing about a film, you know the film is minor at best.
As with “A Walk on the Moon,” the festival itself is only peripherally involved in “Taking Woodstock.” Mainly the film relates what happens in and around the village of Bethel, near to Max Yasgur’s dairy farm, through the eyes of Demetri Martin, who plays Elliot, the son of an immigrant Jewish couple, Jake and Sonia Teichberg, who run a failing motel (the El Monaco) in the village. Elliot is also the chair of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce, which allows him to grant the permit for the festival that was denied by the town of Walkill. And then we follow the preparations, way beyond Elliot’s own experience, which was limited to a summer music festival and a theatrical troupe that had established itself in the Teichberg’s barn.
There’s nothing wrong with “Taking Woodstock,” except that it’s so true to life that it becomes boring. Well, there is something wrong with the film and that is the horrendous miscasting of the British actress Imelda Staunton as Sonia, the Jewish immigrant mother of Elliot. She can’t for the life of her maintain an Ashkenazi accent, she mispronounces words in a way that no Jew would (Jews would mispronounce other words, just not those ones). Although Sonia is a malignant force in the film (until she has a transformation powered by her first hash brownies) she is never believable.
Ang Lee, who directed the film (written by his partner James Schamus from the book “Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert, and a Life,” by Elliot Tiber with Tom Monte), and has done his best – which is considerable – to make it something more than a shallow story, the fact is that “Taking Woodstock,” the movie, is a shallow entertainment.