Stream it or skip it?
Woodstock ’99, the “how it started, how are you” meme of music festivals, is revisited once again, this time for Netflix, with the three-episode docuseries Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99. What began as an ambitious attempt to revisit (and monetize) the mood of peace and love of the 1969 OG festival has turned into a quagmire of supply shortages, logistical snafus, riots, sexual violence and widespread property damage. And oh yes, over 90 artists performed.
Opening shot: Monday, July 26, 1999, and a grainy VHS filmed through a car window as the wreckage of Woodstock ’99 is inspected. “Good God,” said a man. “Is this Bosnia?” another asks, lingering over the carcass of a burnt-out car.
The essential: The plan was simple. Convert the sprawling tarmac of a disused air force base into a festival venue that can accommodate 400,000 ticket holders who can also camp on site. Book a bouquet of acts, up to ten or eleven performances on the two main stages of the event for three days of music. Invite MTV, which in 1999 was still a relevant voice of youth, music and culture. And then sell it all as an à la carte package. Michael Lang, co-founder of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in 1969, has teamed up with concert promoter John Scher to revive the festival and convey the vibes of counterculture, peace, love and music to a generation of children reeling from gun violence like that of the Columbine Massacre, which took place in April 1999. That was the goal, Lang says in Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99. But the key was profit, something Scher hadn’t seen in 1994, when Woodstock’s first revival was engulfed in mud and smash. And according to former staff interviewed for Rail accident, the pursuit of profit meant cutting corners and outsourcing essential supply items. You know, like water.
“How the F**k Did This Happen?”, the first of this three-part docuseries, switches between interviews with Lang, Scher and Joe Griffo, the former mayor of Rome, New York, who all swear their intentions were good. But all that vibration about peace and love – and the colorful paints splattering the impenetrable retaining walls of the concert site – was quickly misunderstood. Ugly screams during Friday afternoon’s Sheryl Crow tipped organizers toward an “element of the crowd that was here for more than just great music,” and Friday night complaints about the exorbitant prices of the water had reached a level of anger. (As Woodstock ’99 attendees who appear in contemporary interviews point out, festival security had also confiscated the water fans brought with them.) Even on the first day of Woodstock, euphoria turned to rage as logistics were collapsing and the heat index was increasing.
If they were looking for water in bags, they weren’t searching people’s socks or belts for marijuana and mushrooms, because as organizers and attendees point out in Rail accident, everyone at Woodstock ’99 was “high as a ball”. Friday night, it was time for Korn to take the stage, and the nu metal outfit, on the aggressive surge follow the leader singles like “Got the Life” and “Freak on a Leash”, seemed poised to be the burning fuse of a tumultuous time bomb. “The crowd went ballistic,” said a former Woodstock security guard, and in the resulting whirlwind of mosh pits and hundreds of thousands of fan churn, it was all anyone could do so as not to fall and be trampled on. To everyone – festival security, the spectators themselves, MTV presenter Ananda Lewis – it was abundantly clear that the promoters and planners of Woodstock ’99 had not prepared for this level of intensity, and that was only the first day.
What shows will this remind you of? In 2021, the HBO Music Box anthology series debuted with Woodstock ’99: peace, love and ragewhich covers roughly the same ground as Rail accident and also includes interviews with promoters, MTV staff and everyday fans who witnessed the festival firsthand. But Woodstock ’99 isn’t the only disaster to get the double doc treatment. While Netflix offers Fyre: The Biggest Party That Ever Happenedchronicling the most contemporary example of a festival fiasco, Hulu also enters the scene with HOME FRAUD.
Our opinion : With so much documentary footage applied to the specific batch of lunatics that Woodstock ’99 has become, the music festival has become something of a meta-anthropological touchstone for the pervasive forces of culture at the turn of the last century. In front of a tottering loudspeaker tower exploding Limp Bizkit, Tyler Durden, Bill Clinton, Kenny de South Park, and the Taco Bell Chihuahua dance and hoot around a raging bonfire, wishing a grim death in the year 2000. But is that really what happened? Woodstock 99, despite all its flaws and destruction, was it really the sublimation of the decaying core of an entire generation? Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99As Woodstock ’99: peace, love and rage before that, seems more willing to point the finger at the crazies – shortages, heat, male toxicity, vandalism – but then only push with causal sketches. In Rail accidentsays a journalist fight club and American pie like damaging 90s riffs on violence and sexuality from an all-male perspective. But then the doc returns to Woodstock staffers who place much of the heckling resulting from the festival on cost cuts, the ignorance of booking largely male acts and the basic issues of unpreparedness. . It’s good if Rail accident just wants to chronicle the horror show. Some bad shit definitely broke out. But the answers to the larger questions about the forces at work in American culture in the ’90s aren’t necessarily to be found in the flames of the second Woodstock revival.
Sex and skin: Rail accident points out that the traveling camera crews of the Woodstock ’99 pay-per-view stream encouraged wild behavior. (“Crazy imagery was the goal,” says PPV producer Aaron Sadovsky.) But the employment here in supercut form of so many examples of nudity and body spraying—both male and female genders are depicted, but it’s mostly feminine – seems abusive.
Farewell shot: “Woodstock ’99 day one!” shouts the stage announcer as antennae play through the thousands of people gathered. “Pow! And then a clip of Stephen Baldwin appears. Baldwin, who wears a T-shirt emblazoned with a newly created dot com logo and was due to be at Woodstock to promote his 1999 film The sex monster, in which he plays a toxic male yuppie, addresses the crowd. “I think we need to see a lot more!”
Sleeping Star: We will go with Tom and Keith here. These two were 16 when they attended Woodstock ’99, and they retain a certain goofy charm in their interviews today. They just wanted to fight their way to the front row for Korn’s set. Not because of a boiling desire to whip up mosh pit violence, but because the opening notes of “Blind” beckoned them. Give them a break. It was their very first concert.
The most pilot line: In frontman Jonathan Davis’s mind, the tumultuous crowd that gathered for Korn’s set made the atmosphere electric, no matter what they portended for the days ahead. “There’s no drugs, there’s nothing on this planet that can give you that fucking feeling of having a crowd in your hand like that.”
Our call: SPREAD IT. It’s interesting to revisit 1999, watch the cracking VHS footage and ask yourself “What did it all mean?”, especially in the context of the decade that followed. Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99 don’t dig all the way into these big questions. But it offers an introduction and its share of ideas.
Johnny Loftus is a freelance writer and editor living in Chicagoland. Her work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media and Nicki Swift. Follow him on Twitter: @glenganges