There are dozens of photos, videos, and material written about the legendary Woodstock Festival. Depending on what year you’re looking at, it can be good or bad. There are a handful of documentaries or films about the first Woodstock that took place in 1969 because it was such an impactful statement for the time. The festival was all about coming together to show peace in love in a time of war and discord. When Woodstock returned for its 25th anniversary in 1994, it was a bridge between the popular acts of the 60s with the up-and-coming acts of the 90s, maintaining a lot of the same peaceful spirit. But then Woodstock 99 happened. An event that changed how a portion of society views this festival. What was once a weekend of peace had become a weekend of chaos and destruction just 30 years later.
Diving into the history and details of this immense failure of a festival, Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage is a documentary directed by Garret Price and released by HBO through their Music Box collaboration. Music Box is a collection of six documentary films created by Bill Simmons exploring pivotal moments in the music world. These films are put on by Ringer Films Production in association with Polygram Entertainment.
Going into this documentary, I knew very little about any of the Woodstock festivals. I knew that it was a big event for hippies, but I also knew that there was a lot of negative energy around the topic if anyone tried to bring up the idea of bringing back Woodstock. So, I just assumed it was like The Who concert where people got trampled, that the crowd got too wild. After viewing Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage, (shortened to Woodstock 99 going forward) I see it’s a lot more layered than that. And there’s so much surrounding that event that is often glossed over by the rose-colored glasses-wearing fans of the festival.
Something Woodstock 99 does well is put you into the heart of the festival. From clips, interviews, photos, and so on, viewers are transported back to 1999, a time vastly different than now, and yet in some ways, still the same. To begin the documentary, we see an interview with Michael Lang, the co-founder of Woodstock, where he is asked “Are you gonna do another?” another in this case being another festival, he replies, “If it works.” Starting with this sets the tone for the entire film. We soon learn that it’s going to be done again, but it’s absolutely not going to “work.”
Woodstock 99 took place July 23-25, 1999. Wanting this festival to feel different from those that came before it, Michael Lang and longtime promoter John Scher decided to market this festival to the current youth of the time. This meant little to no artists were seen on the original lineup. This was a time when nu-metal and other variations of rock and hip hop were gaining momentum with young people, so the 30th-anniversary lineup included acts such as Limp Bizkit, DMX, Korn, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Metallica, Sheryl Crow, and many more that can be seen on the poster below. One of the taglines to gain interest was that it’s “not your father’s Woodstock.”
The documentary giving the event creators Lang and Scher a chance to voice their positive feelings about the festival despite many others in the documentary ripping it apart was a good choice, an attempt at being unbiased, but it didn’t come off that way. Truly, it felt like they were included just to shock viewers, to see just how blinded the people behind this festival were by nostalgia and money. They wanted it to be good and told themselves it was still good despite all that went wrong.
With all the buzz around the festival, there was a pay-per-view option to watch the festival from home if you couldn’t make it out. Being the 30th anniversary, there was also a ton of coverage of the festival, which comes in handy for Woodstock 99 which is able to take viewers through so many facets of the festival. It may not have been the time of cell phones but recording your experiences through a camera was common. It’s through clips from these different outlets that we get to follow the festival like we’re there for the weekend. The footage is like a window into another time. And because so much of the festival is being documented and tracked, there was a lot of pressure to make it spectacular. It’s clear that the creators wanted that so badly. But the execution just wasn’t there. From the jump, it’s clear this documentary is going to go into what went so wrong with Woodstock 99. And there was a lot that went wrong.
For starters, we learn that there was a lot of greed going on. Something Woodstock 99 does well is that it provides evidence that concertgoers were exploited by the organizers of Woodstock due to their fantasy of reviving old times. They thought the new generation needed the same kind of festival they had, that kids could feel the same magic that they did. It’s a nice sentiment but it’s very much like a grandpa telling you, “They don’t make it like they used to.” The egotistical notion that the youth of the late '90s needed this to “get back on track,” so to speak, was a mistake to begin with. Woodstock 99 was marketed to a specific demographic, mostly middle-class young white men, the ones who had the money and ability to attend. From a business standpoint, it makes sense. But doing this led to some exclusion (even if unintentional) from other minorities in attendance. There was this energy that there were no rules at Woodstock and that anything went. This is what led to the eventual chaos.
The organizers wanted to bring in large crowds but were ill-equipped to provide proper food/water, toiletries, and protection to festivalgoers. It might be easier to list them out below.
Water for sale was $4, the same price as beer, and lines snaked all over the place for food/drink and to the ATM for people to get money out. Promoters claim there was free drinking water which was actually just big troughs of water which eventually turned into people using it for showers and other things that dirtied the water.
The security hired for the event was not vetted properly, received minimal training, and thus, did not do their jobs properly. They were willing to look the other way if someone wanted to bring in drugs, all while confiscating things such as food or water.
Showers were only separated by a tarp, and this led to discomfort for concertgoers (especially women) when using the facilities.
The bathrooms were not properly maintained which led to pipes bursting and murky feces-filled water puddled up everywhere, with some attendees mistaking it for mud and jumping into the puddles (gross!)
Many security guards quit after a few days and joined the crowd, leaving even less security for an already short-staffed festival (just about 10K, for the 400K attendees according to the doc).
The overwhelming heat over the weekend led to heat exhaustion and other medical problems for attendees.
The amalgamation of all of this led to hundreds of thousands of exhausted, stressed-out people all in one place that doesn’t meet their basic human needs, listening to music that helps encourage them to release that frustration. It was inevitable that this sort of energy would lead to chaos. Woodstock 99 raises the question of what was the true cause of the riots that this festival eventually led to.
Woodstock 99 came at the turn of the century, a time when there was a lot of uncertainty about what was to come. You had a generation of youth that held a lot of anger, but likely not any more than prior generations. The documentary attempts to paint a horrifying picture of a generation that’s just violent to its core. That they’re just chaos through and through. And that the “aggressive” music just made things worse. This is something that took me out of the documentary. As a person who listens to metal, deathcore, hardcore, and other “aggressive” genres, I thought the depiction that it was because of the nu metal bands’ aggressive music that people went wild is an unfair perpetuation. A lot of the time, this sort of “aggressive” music is an escape, a way to unleash fans’ frustration in a healthier way, usually in a designated space like a mosh pit. I may listen to a band scream about burning a building down, but does that mean I’m more inclined to burn a building down on my own time? Of course not.
All this said, there are always exceptions, the extremists, the ones who take the music too literally. Those might have been the people in the crowd instigating the fires, the destruction/tearing down of property, and inciting the riots. But the documentary’s portrayal that the music had any hand in making people violent felt like a stretch to me, an attempt to paint a darker picture. I find it more likely that those who started the destruction already had that frustration and desire in them to incite chaos. This sort of thing could happen at any concert. Irritate and mistreat people enough, put them in a setting where inhibitions are set free, and what seems unlikely can happen in an instant.
I can feel myself ranting as I type this, so I’ll get to the bottom line. The Woodstock 99 documentary explores the possibilities of who’s to blame for the festival’s disastrous outcome. It asks the questions, was it the music’s fault? The type of crowd the festival attracted? The promoters and their poor planning? This documentary attempts to show that’s it all of the above, especially homing in on the idea that the misogynistic predominantly white male crowd was already a ticking time bomb from the start. They do this by citing the culture at the time where women were seen as sexual objects and used as a punchline more often than not. They show the women attending the festival were groped and raped, with only a small few coming forward about the assaults. With the mindset that they could take what they wanted at Woodstock, they destroyed and rioted without fear of consequences.
While this idea is very possible, some elements do feel like a stretch. Not to mention the fact that the documentary contradicts itself. It presents very delicate topics and goes into detail about how people such as the cameramen were preying on the women attendees, all while continuing to exploitatively show these half-naked women throughout the entire documentary. Doing things like this, along with entertaining the idea that the musicians are somehow responsible for things happening in the crowd that they weren’t even aware of takes away some of the credibility of this documentary. It’s okay to slightly lean one way more than the other in a depiction like this, but it felt completely swayed.
Woodstock 99 does a great job of providing viewers with a window into a different time, to see the trainwreck as it unfolds and explore all the different theories for why it happened. It also includes some amazing music footage, interviews, and video diaries of the time that work to set the scene for what the festival was truly like. But I think this documentary would have been better had they just stuck to demonizing the true culprit of this failure: the organizers and their greed.
We are shown throughout Woodstock 99 that the creators/organizers behind Woodstock are still convinced to this day that everything was blown out of proportion, that the festival was great and the things that went wrong are just mere setbacks. That idiocy would have been enough to carry the documentary. But instead, they chose to bog it down with other unnecessary theories making it a headache to even address in a simple review.
Despite its faults, I’m grateful documentaries like this exist for those who weren’t there to live through these pivotal moments. I do think that Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage was entertaining and educational. I came out of it feeling like I knew so much more about all the iterations of the Woodstock Festival, and now I fully understand why so many people don’t want it to return. Given the greed and poor planning still taking place in music festivals here in the 2020s (such as Astroworld and Blue Ridge Rock Festival), I wouldn’t want Woodstock to try to come back any time soon. Woodstock 99 is a perfect example of how cutting corners can lead to your downfall, and there are a lot of promoters who can learn from those mistakes, especially today.
Written by Kristen Petronio