The central character in Ang Lee's “Taking Woodstock” only visits the three-day peace, love and music event twice. The first time, Elliot (Demetri Martin) is waylaid by a hip couple who give him some LSD, which Lee transforms into a far-out scene with melting colors and undulating hills, replicating an acid experience as adequately as any movie could. But the sequence is also unduly indicative of the movie itself. “Taking Woodstock,” an oblique look at the event through the lesser-known people who helped bring it off, is a surprisingly amusing '60s flashback ultimately overwhelmed by the enormity of the trip.
The movie follows Elliot, an artist, from his Brooklyn studio to Bethel, N.Y., in the Catskills, where he helps his aging parents (Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton) keep up their dilapidated “resort,” the El Monaco Motel. Facing foreclosure, Elliot offers his permit for a yearly summer concert to the people putting on Woodstock, who fly in by helicopter and drop off armfuls of money in exchange for the use of Elliot and his neighbor's (Eugene Levy) properties.
The movie is based on a book about the experiences of the real Elliot Teischberg, and many of its wackier details supposedly did happen. The announcement hits the papers and pandemonium ensues. The locals are in an uproar about the coming hippie invasion, and for good reason. Hundreds of thousands of pot-smoking youth pour in from all over the country, accompanied by the battalion of personnel needed to put on the show, along with vendors, mobsters, protestors, an addled Vietnam vet (Emile Hirsch) and at least one pistol-packing trannie, Velma (Liev Schreiber), who offers her services as head of security.
There's also Elliot's growing concern with his homosexuality as well as his relationship with his parents, which is deteriorating faster than the motel. Occasionally employing the split-screen-and-panels technique from his version of “The Hulk,” director Lee keeps all this action at an ordered, low-key hum while conveying the general chaos. But when 500,000 people march through your movie it's difficult not to be trampled. Lee's attempt to include everything from the historic moment has the tendency to obscure what he's trying to say about the moment.
“Taking Woodstock” might seem somewhat opportunistic landing on the heels of Woodstock's 40th anniversary, but for the most part it's a modest movie that's sweet-natured and enjoyable. It might have been a really good one, but the groovy times, like the eccentric but distracting theater troupe that Elliot's parents keep in their barn, interrupt too often to allow proper reflection. When Elliot makes it to the actual concert a second time, the crowd has dispersed, and all he's privy to is an endless heap of mud and debris. The philosophical suggestion is tangible, but, again, all too ambiguous for the movie's good. (R) 121 min. HHHII S