Among the landmark events of the 1960s, the Woodstock Music and Art Festival seems ripe for big-screen mythologizing “ particularly while baby boomers are celebrating its 40th anniversary. But “Taking Woodstock,” a coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of how the three-day concert came to be, never truly finds its footing. A handful of lyrical scenes is offset by too many clunkers. Some remarkable acting is undercut by a mediocre performance that is central to the film. The result is only mildly groovy.
You can certainly do worse than run-of-the-mill, of course, but it’s a disappointment coming from Oscar-winning director Ang Lee. As he showed in 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain” and 2007’s “Lust, Caution,” Lee has a gift for delicately rendered, bittersweet drama. “Taking Woodstock,” by contrast, takes off only when it’s indulging hippie-dippy nostalgia. Those delights, unfortunately, are tucked inside a conventionally told tale based on an Elliot Tiber memoir. And if there’s one thing a movie about Woodstock should not be, it’s conventional.
Our hero, Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin, “Paper Heart”), is a mild-mannered New York City interior designer who spends most of his time in the Catskills helping his immigrant parents (Imelda Staunton, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” and Henry Goodman, “Hooligans”) at the motel they own. Calling the El Monaco a motel is being kind; it’s a fleabag dump where the only steady occupants are a theater troupe that has taken up residence in the property’s barn. But dutiful Elliot labors away, trying to keep his mercurial mother from scaring away lodgers while saving the motel from looming foreclosure.
Then Elliot reads that a neighboring village has nixed plans for a big music festival slated to feature the likes of Janis Joplin and The Who. Sensing opportunity for a spike in business, Elliot gets in touch with the concert promoter, a preternaturally self-composed hippie named Michael Lang (Broadway star Jonathan Groff), about bringing the shindig to his town.
Lang and his colleagues descend on the area, like what they see and promptly rent space on the 600-acre dairy farm of Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy, “For Your Consideration”). And the rest, as they say, is peace, love and history.
But a funny thing happened on the way back to the garden. Screenwriter James Schamus, Lee’s longtime collaborator, takes a real-life milestone full of tantalizing possibility and pads it into mush. The onslaught of longhaired festivalgoers rankles the townsfolk (“They’ll rob us blind during the day and rape our cattle at night!” shouts one irate merchant), but the conflict rings hollow as the plotting seems tacked on, more obligatory than inspired. Elliot’s personal saga is similarly formulaic. A closeted gay, he learns to assert himself and stop letting life pass him by. “Taking Woodstock” lumbers through his journey of self-discovery as if it is homework.
Comedian Martin (he shows up often on cable’s Comedy Central) doesn’t help matters. Bearing more than a passing physical resemblance to Dustin Hoffman circa “The Graduate,” his performance is admirably understated, but undeniably underwhelming. His screen presence is lighter than helium, and that deficit is all the more glaring when matched up with a top-notch supporting cast. Lee is generous to his actors, and most are given opportunity to shine, particularly Emile Hirsch (“Milk”) as a troubled Vietnam vet and Liev Schreiber (“X-Men Origins: Wolverine”) as an ex-Marine transvestite who winds up providing security for the El Monaco.
Despite a wheezy plotline and unremarkable protagonist, “Taking Woodstock” still has moments of grandeur. Snatches of period detail are effective, but unobtrusive, even if the soundtrack has a surprising dearth of ’60s-era rock. Lee and cinematographer Eric Gautier also pay sly homage to Michael Wadleigh’s seminal 1970 documentary, “Woodstock,” by occasionally mimicking that earlier film’s use of split screens.
When “Taking Woodstock” gets around to the festival, however, it approaches the magical. Tranquil isn’t the easiest sensation for a movie to bottle, but serenity radiates from the screen when Elliot, having helped make Woodstock a reality, watches a group of skinny dippers wading in a lake near the El Monaco. A soft wind rustles through trees; music from the concert is heard in the far distance. Elliot resolves to finally see the festival for himself, and he joins the teeming, near-reverent throngs heading up the road to Yasgur’s farm. It is a scene that soars as high as the young people on their way to Woodstock and that alone might be worth the trip.
Just don’t try the brown acid.