REVIEW: As Garrett Price’s sometimes jaw-dropping documentary tells us from the outset, it could have been so easy to structure this story as a comedy.
Detail how, through a series of promoter missteps, the prevailing culture and excitable youth, a 30th anniversary homage to one of the most revered musical festivals turned into a farce.
But wisely, and far more disturbingly, Woodstock 99: Peace, Love and Rage (which debuts on SoHo on Monday night, October 11, at 9.30pm, before hitting Neon on October 15) plays out more like a horror film, a look back at an ill-conceived, ill-fated, mass gathering that became an evolving crisis.
A very public disaster that led to safeguards and reforms, but one that also not only still resonates, but perhaps explains the genesis of a certain discontented sub-cohort of the American public today.
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Emboldened by the success, against both the naysayers and fickle weather, of Woodstock ‘94, promoters Michael Lang and John Schuer decided they would try to do it all again five years later. But while that event had tried to replicate the spirit of ‘69, this would very much target youth.
Chosen more for its ability to prevent ticketless gatecrashers than ambiance, a retired air force base in Rome, New York was chosen to host more than 100 acts over three days. While James Brown would open, the line-up very much reflected modern music, with everyone from Everclear to Everlast, Megadeth to Metallica and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers to Rage Against the Machine set to grace the two main stages around a mile apart.
As Lang and Schuer had hoped, around 350,000 lined-up to experience this “generation-defining” three-day event (with plenty more watching it all unfold from home, either via pay-per-view, or MTV’s extensive coverage), the organisers’ initial concerns only around the scorching weather forecast. However, while there was definitely a spirit of freedom in the air, fuelled by alcohol, hormones and the “dark energy” perpetuated by the music and lyrics of some of the then popular artists, it quickly became clear it was unlikely to simply result in peace, love and harmony
Forget 2017’s Fyre Festival, Woodstock ‘99, as recounted here by those who attended it, performed or acted as security, was a real dumpster fire of a music festival. It offers a depiction of toxic masculinity, environmental disregard and humanity at its worst, as the rubbish, antisocial behaviour and sexual assaults pile up.
More than 20 years on, some of the interviewees attempt to unpick how this powder keg came to be, citing pricing water the same as beer, only including three female artists (Alanis Morissette, Jewel and Sheryl Crow) and then dividing them so that only one featured each night, and encouraging the young women in attendance to wear as little as possible.
“How is this Woodstock?,” Moby, who performed in the underwhelming “rave tent” recalls thinking. “It would’ve made so much more sense if it’d been called, like, Army Base Rock ’99 Featuring Limp Bizkit.”
While initially, it’s amusing to watch inebriated and overexcited concertgoers cake themselves in what they believe to be mud (but was actually overflow from the port-a-loos), it quickly becomes disturbing viewing as performers dodge barrages of plastic bottles and crowdsurfers’ moments of euphoria are marred by groping from every angle. An emergency medical technician, who later witnessed the events and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, describes this as the “greatest disaster I ever worked at”.
And while footage shows that some of those on stage didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory, one of the promoters’ attempts (then and now) to lay the blame on them are laughable and truly maddening.
As this recounts, the ongoing perception and legacy of the original Woodstock was very much determined by the concert movie that came out the following year. Even though this has taken 22 years, Price’s harrowing James Brown-to-Megadeath account of the “cinematic cataclysm” of ‘99 might well be the final word on what was both a cautionary tale and, hopefully, unrepeatable nightmare.
Woodstock 99: Peace, Love and Rage debuts on SoHo on Monday, October 11, at 9.30pm, before becoming available to stream on Neon from October 15.