There’s very little of the authentic music and even less of the authentic vibe in Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, a view of the legendary 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Festival as seen through the eyes of a gay, Jewish, aspiring interior designer and his immigrant parents who ran a ratty Catskill motel down the road from where it all went down. So if you want the truth – and the spirit – get Michael Wadleigh’s great 1970 Woodstock documentary on Netflix. On the other hand, if you want a big, crass dollop of British character actor Imelda Staunton doing a broad oy oy oy Jewish accent, you’re in luck: Staunton hams up an un-Kosher version of a suffocating, manipulative Jewish mother in this unharmonious production (based on a memoir by actual son-of-motel-owners Elliot Tiber, written with Tom Monte). The cast is a combination of plucky young talents (including Martin as Elliot, Emile Hirsch as a shell-shocked Vietnam vet, and Paul Dano and Kelli Garner as tripping hippies) and hipster grown-ups (Liev Schreiber plays a transvestite ex-Marine, and Eugene Levy does his own bit of rocking as dairy farmer Max Yasgur, whose land became sacred concert ground).
The movie is undergroovy and overplotted: Clean-cut, dutiful Eliot blisses out, and afterwards finds the strength to break away from his damaged, damaging mama. (Come to think of it, aren’t many of the movies Ang Lee has made with screenwriter/producer James Schamus about frustrated outsiders, from Brokeback Mountain to The Hulk?) It may be that Taking Woodstock has just the right tourist vibe to entertain an international Cannes audience that prefers its America (on screen and off) as a notion rather than a reality. Those more familiar with actual American pop culture, on the other hand, who know rising comic personage Demetri Martin from his late-night TV appearances and his recent Comedy Central series Important Things With Demetri Martin, are more likely to think, what were the producers smoking, asking such an untried actor to represent so much history?