Jewish family’s role is center stage in ‘Taking Woodstock’

Taking Woodstock

isn’t likely to go down as Academy Award winning director Ang Lee’s most distinguished film, but it sure is a lot of fun, with plenty of laugh out loud moments, an involving story and thoroughly memorable characters. Based on the memoirs of Elliot Tiber, it details how the infamous Woodstock concert came to be and the dysfunctional Jewish family that inadvertently was at the epicenter of the Summer of Love.

In the summer of 1969, Elliot (Demetri Martin), a closeted gay interior designer, is trying to help his overbearing Russian-Jewish immigrant parents from losing their ramshackle El Monaco “Resort” in the Catskills to foreclosure. When Elliot reads that a nearby town has denied permits for a major rock concert featuring Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix among others, he persuades the promoters to relocate the show to White Lake, figuring it will boost his parent’s business. No worries about the permits either; Elliot happens to be the head of the town’s Chamber of Commerce.

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By the time the multitude of event organizers and construction crews arrive, including the oh-so-laid-back show’s producer Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff), it dawns on Elliot that he may have gotten more than he bargained for. To make matters worse, the conservative townspeople, fearful that drug-addled hippies will rob and rape them, turn against Elliot as he and his parents are forced to deal with the invasion of more than half-a-million people for three days of music, peace and love.

Director Lee, working from a solid screenplay by collaborator James Schamus, does a fine job capturing time, place and mood. He makes great use of split-screen techniques as he replicates the mellow chaos behind the festival preparations as well as the overcrowded event itself.

The film also deftly embraces coming-of-age in the Age of Aquarius, as Elliot grapples with his sexuality, his burdensome parents and his connection to a fast changing world. To that end, Martin, best known for his work as a standup comic, demonstrates a low-key acting style that fits his character to a tee. Looking like the proverbial bar mitzvah boy, his Elliot is the perfect study of a young man trying to keep it together while constantly feeling flummoxed. Of course it doesn’t help that he has to deal with America’s meanest woman, his mother, played deliciously by Imelda Staunton and his well-intentioned, but henpecked, ailing father (Henry Goodman, also nailing the part).

Some of the ancillary characters work better than others. As a disenchanted, off-kilter Vietnam vet, Emile Hirsch’s Billy seems to be aboard solely as a touchstone to the times. Also somewhat obvious, but a lot funnier, are Kelli Garner and Paul Dano as acid-tripping hippies, though their scene goes on too long, and Dan Fogler as head of an avant-garde acting troupe whose members find any excuse to take off their clothes.

Then there’s Liev Schreiber providing even more comic relief as a gun-toting ex-Marine drag queen hired by Elliot for festival security. While his Vilma is hell-on-wheels, he is most effective as an emotional protector, helping Elliot to live in the moment and come to terms with who he is.

Although we never see the performers or any concert footage, Taking Woodstock makes you feel as if you were at the legendary festival. Or at least as if you had arrived a few weeks early and then gone backstage.

Taking Woodstock

RATED: R for graphic nudity, some sexual content, drug use and language

RUNNING TIME: 1:50

OPENS: Friday, Aug. 28