Much of our enjoyment of a movie is based on expectations – and this title is misleading. The fabled music festival with Jimi, Janis and Arlo is simply the historical background for Ang Lee’s low-key, lightweight, personal story about Elliot Tiber (Demetri Martin) a young, semi-closeted gay painter/interior designer in New York’s Greenwich Village who spends his weekends in the Catskills trying to help his stereotypical Russian Jewish immigrant parents, Jake and Sonia Teichberg (Henry Goodman, Imelda Staunton), keep their run-down El Monaco Motel from going bankrupt.
As president of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce, Elliot offers the use of El Monaco as a ramshackle base camp to the organizers and staff of Woodstock Ventures after the company loses its permit for an arts festival in nearby Wallkill. He also brokers a deal between Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff), one of the festival’s producer/organizers, and Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy), who owns a 600-acre dairy farm down the road in White Lake (Yes, the festival actually took place in White Lake, not Woodstock.) As the inevitable chaos climaxes, Elliot drops acid with an Age of Aquarius couple in a van (Kelli Garner, Paul Dano), amid the hippies-in-the-mud and graphic nudity.
Riffing on Elliot Tiber memoir, “Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert and A Life,” written with Tom Monte, James Schamus’s screenplay rambles episodically; its sprawling fragmentation is emphasized by Ang Lee’s kaleidoscopic use of multiple cameras and a split-screen. Stand-up comedian Demetri Martin doesn’t measure up to the dramatic demands of the leading role that’s thrust upon him and Emile Hirsch’s bitter, brain-fried Vietnam vet is over-the-top, but Liev Schreiber is memorable as a macho, transsexual ex-Marine security guard. And you can glimpse Meryl Streep’s daughter, Mamie Gummer, looking lovely as Tisha, Jonathan Groff’s supposed girl-friend.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Taking Woodstock” is an occasionally amusing yet shallow 6. If you really want to tune in and turn on to the authentic musical flavor of 40 years ago, rent Michael Wadleigh’s Oscar-winning 1970 concert documentary “Woodstock.”