Good vibes prevail in “Taking Woodstock.” Unlike the rock festival itself, it offers no brown acid to avoid.
Nicely timed for the 40th anniversary of the event, Ang Lee’s new film takes a shrewd angle on the phenomenon of Woodstock: Instead of showing us concert footage (or even including much music), it tells us how the fabled festival staggered its way into immortality.
It’s based on an autobiography of a man named Elliot Teichberg, also known as Elliot Tibor, who played an obscure but critical role in the making of Woodstock. So instead of concentrating on Jimi or Janis or The Who, we’re catching history from the ground up.
James Schamus’ screenplay focuses on the weeks leading up to the festival, when Teichberg was spending another summer helping his parents manage their rundown motel in upstate New York.
With just weeks before the planned rock festival was scheduled to go, organizers were stymied when their permit was revoked in a town not far from the Teichberg spread. Elliot read about the cancellation, and armed with an innocuous little permit for an outdoor musical festival of his own (he’d been thinking of bringing a string quartet in), Teichberg promptly made history by suggesting the Woodstock people might want to look at his parents’ backyard.
That was too small, but a nearby dairy farm owned by Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy) fit the bill. The great Aquarian moment was on.
Elliot is played by comedian Demetri Martin, the Beatle-mopped deadpan artist, who isn’t much of an actor but has the right hangdog look interrupted by a cheerful kind of wit and vitality. The movie treads gingerly, but not timidly, around Elliot’s semi-closeted status as a gay man.
His parents, played by Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton, are nearly equal partners in the saga, Jewish immigrants whose skepticism about these crazy hippies is outweighed by the probable salvation of their business.
Other characters flit through in an exceedingly good-natured way: blissfully high concert organizer Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff), an amped-up Vietnam vet (Emile Hirsch), and a hippie actor (Dan Fogler) and his frequently naked troupe.
Not to mention a burly Korean War Marine (Liev Schreiber) who may be the most ingratiating cross-gendered movie character since John Lithgow in “The World According to Garp.” It’s that kind of film.
The concert’s in there too, after a fashion. But mostly we stick with Elliot’s journey from frustrated son to liberated child of the ’60s, which conjures the same bittersweet mood as most of Ang Lee’s films.
It would be groovy to give this feel-good picture complete approval, but I regret to say “Taking Woodstock” falls apart in its final half-hour, sometime after a predictable LSD trip occupies our psychedelic attention for a while. It still creates a pleasurable mood — and yes, the music is pretty good, too.