There was a whole lot of fringe at Woodstock, the pivotal fringe festival that took place 40 years ago not in the artsy Upstate New York town but in the distant hamlet of Bethel.
In the summer of '69 there were 500,000 stories in that naked village. Taking Woodstock is one of them, a microcosm of the fabled occasion that brought rock-and-roll to Rip Van Winkle country.
Ang Lee's deadpan-comic account of the event sees the shaggy and fringe-vested horde through the bemused eyes of Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin), the real-life youth who helped promoters score the permit they needed to host the festival.
Seeing the human circus from Elliot's blinkered perspective provides the absurdist pleasure of watching a historic event through the wrong end of the telescope, as though peering at Hamlet through Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's peephole in Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
Martin, the comedian with his own show on Comedy Central, plays Elliot with the numb-faced, raw-nerved attitude that Dustin Hoffman patented in The Graduate. Like that movie's Benjamin Braddock and the generation that Woodstock defined, Elliot Teichberg was in the process of finding himself as an American man, a man very different from his Russian immigrant parents. And like Lee movies from The Wedding Banquet through Sense and Sensibility and Brokeback Mountain, this one is about a younger generation breaking away from its elders.
The elder Teichbergs, the needling Sonia (Imelda Staunton) and needled Jake (Henry Goodman), are rustics facing foreclosure on the El Monaco, their dilapidated motel with delusions of glamour, which is slipping slowly into the swamp. Elliot, who lives in Manhattan but continues to manage his parents' business affairs, is a would-be entrepreneur and accidental provocateur.
Head of the Bethel chamber of commerce, Elliot holds a permit for the annual arts festival. With dreams of paying off the mortgage, he contacts the Woodstock promoters, denied a permit for their "Aquarian Festival," offering them the El Monaco property and his permit.
Elliot's gesture, small and insignificant as skipping a stone across a peaceful lake, results in the event that parts the waters between dominant culture and counterculture, a situation Lee and screenwriter James Schamus, Lee's longtime collaborator, play for both the inherent slapstick and seriousness. Threading through the horde, Elliot is offered LSD by two hippies and in his altered state has a vision of humanity as a synchronous wave.
You can smell the incense and peppermint (and pot and sweat and cholent) wafting through the Catskills as Taking Woodstock shows how bucolic Sullivan County, home to dairies and battered Borscht Belt resorts, became ground zero of the Generation Gap. Under his nimbus of curls, promoter Michael Lang (a peaced-out and wry performance from Jonathan Groff) promotes business and brotherhood among music execs and farmers.
As Max Yasgur, whose farm ultimately hosted the concert, Eugene Levy gives the film's warmest performance. He senses the times are changing and wants a front-row seat. Also quite fine is Liev Schreiber as Vilma, a transvestite ex-Marine in a blond wig and pink shift, who provides security at the suddenly overrun El Monaco, where a family drama and the human comedy share a double bill.
Lee distills the flavor of this transforming event and hints at how it transformed some who were there. His movie is a contact high.