It takes a lot of chutzpah to do a film about the most famous concert ever and have the action go near Woodstock, along the outskirts of Woodstock, behind the scenes at Woodstock, but never show us the concert itself. It could lead to a vague sense that there’s a better movie to be seen, off screen.
And to a certain extent, I admire Ang Lee for doing it (I'm actually a huge Lee fan and even liked his much-maligned Lust, Caution). After all, the Woodstock story has been told many times before. However, the story of the small innkeepers in the Catskills who unwittingly become the host to half a million hippie guests? Now that story has not been told.
And Lee almost pulls it off.
As the film starts, we meet the dutiful son, Elliot Teichberg (newcomer Demetri Martin) and his crotchety innkeeper parents, Jake (Henry Goodman) and Sonya (Imelda Staunton). The Teichberg’s have owned their hotel for years now, and it has fallen into disrepair—Sonya barks at the customers and rations sheets and towels, and Jake pours bleach into the pool instead of chlorine. It’s Elliot who has to keep things afloat—he has dreams of making a go as an interior designer in Manhattan, but he keeps coming back to Bethel, NY to bail his parents out of foreclosure. (He also heads up the local chamber of commerce.)
When Elliot reads about the mega concert in search of a home, he industriously contacts Woodstock Inc. and offers up his property. A few days later, several people arrive by helicopter and limo at the Teichberg’s home. Among them, concert organizer Michael Lang (Broadway It Boy Jonathan Groff)—a long-haired, preternaturally serene figure with a mop of curly hair—and various money men and assistants. It is quickly determined that the Teichberg’s property is too swampy to do the trick, and the players negotiate with the dairy farmer down the street Max Yasgure (Eugene Levy, dialed down, but welcome as ever.)
So the Summer of Love comes to town. First a trickle, then a full-bore stampede (especially after a high Elliot implies that the concert is free in a press conference.)
The expected things occur: Elliot comes to terms with the fact that he is gay, experiments with drugs, and decides to go his own way. His parents loosen up and learn to live a little. The residents of the town, resistant at first, come to appreciate the cash cow this concert will be.
But, as is Lee’s tendency, all the 60s clichés are played too broadly—from the experimental theater troupe that lives in the Teichberg’s barn (Lee’s depiction of the perpetually naked troupe, who express themselves by emitting guttural noises and screeching, is hilarious, but way over the top), to a Vietnam vet with PTSD played with wild eyes by Emile Hirsch, to the Christ-like Lang, who sometimes strides around the town atop a white horse. In those moments, the film veers into inadvertant parody. A potentially serious moment—some mafia toughs try to hone in on the festival’s money—is quickly shrugged off for laughs.
At least the mob appearance leads to the arrival of drag queen Vilma (Liev Schreiber), an ex Navy SEAL, now a security expert for hire. Schreiber, who has been playing a lot of toughs lately, inverts his new persona brilliantly with the wise and mothering Vilma.
And then the concert comes to town. Just when we feel that Lee should be wrapping things up—or switching his focus to the stage—he decides to delve more deeply into Elliot’s personal journey of discovery. (Tantalizingly, we can hear the concert in the background.) Some critics have blamed the film’s soggy final third on Martin, who is a bit of a low-key presence to be carrying entire film, but I found him a likeable presence. Instead, I’ll place some of the blame on James Schamus’ script, which gears us up for a kick-ass rock concert and then decides to go all emo instead. Hey dude, don’t ya know that emo doesn’t get invented for another 40 years?