We’re Gonna Party Like It’s 1999: Two TV Documentaries Grapple with the Other Woodstock
I remember the night Woodstock burned. The scenes on CBS news were shocking. A half dozen fires burning in the darkness of night as young shirtless men danced in the foreground and tossed wreaked pieces of the festival grounds into the blaze. Crumpled light towers collapsed to the ground. A dozen semi trucks in a row, on fire and exploding. For those of us who are old enough to have attended the original Woodstock or to have heard firsthand accounts of it from older brothers and sisters or cousins, it felt like the awful betrayal of something beautiful and innocent. It was as if Woodstock ‘99 had determined to go down in history as the shadow version of its famous predecessor. That one is forever surrounded by an aura of peace, love, and fraternal bliss. This one ended in an explosion of arson, massive property destruction, and sexual assault.
The infamous 1999 music festival is the subject of two recent documentaries, HBO’s “Woodstock ‘99: Peace Love and Rage,” produced for its Music Box series of documentary films, and Netflix’s more recent three-part docuseries “Trainwreck: Woodstock ‘99.” No one should mistake these documentaries for 90s nostalgia. They are both hard-hitting exposés that lay the blame for the riot mostly at the feet of the concert promoters and the companies they hired to feed and support the concertgoers during the event. In both films, poor planning, shocking naïveté, and greed surface as the major causes for the riot. A handful of bands are singled out for deliberately firing up the crowd when all evidence suggested it was ready to explode, most notably Limp Bizkit and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
In order to make this narrative work, the filmmakers mostly exempt the overwhelmingly under-thirty crowd from blame. In the cultural mythology surrounding Woodstock ‘69, the crowd is often depicted in heroic terms, because they rose above societal expectations of how hundreds of thousands of young people would likely behave when a music festival goes off the rails. In “Woodstock ‘99: Peace, Love, and Rage” and “Trainwreck,” however, the crowd behaves exactly as cynics believe they would under the circumstances. But both documentaries are determined to present concertgoers as victims, stripped of food, water, and all semblance of personal agency as they entered the festival area and then subjected to inhumane living conditions for three grueling days in the hot sun. And then, as a finale, the brain-dead promoters hand out thousands of candles for a vigil about gun violence. You can almost hear the filmmakers slapping their collective foreheads because they clearly believe that the fiery riot was inevitable at that point.
And maybe it was, but I was still bothered by this depiction of the crowd as a mass of shirtless, frenetic, mostly male automatons who would have followed Fred Durst over a cliff if he’d asked them. In fact, many concertgoers left the festival before the riot began, when it was obvious that the event was becoming, literally, a large-scale shit show. The price gouging for food and water, the big muddy puddles of feces-laced water leaking out from the portapotties, the mountains of trash, and the lack of shade drove nearly half of the attendees to an early exit. Also, many who stayed to the end did not participate in the rioting and looting. There was an alternative to burning the place down and many took it.
A Tale of Two Woodstocks comparison was ripe for the plucking after I finished watching “Trainwreck”: Why didn’t the crowd band together to rescue the event from catastrophe as the original Woodstock generation did with their festival? Where was the peace, love, and understanding that the concert promoters thought would carry over across three decades to this Woodstock generation? Both festivals were logistical catastrophes, but only one of them ended in a fiery riot. Why is that? These questions go mostly unasked and unanswered in this latest round of Woodstock documentaries.
The missing ingredient at Woodstock ‘99 may have been an active, vibrant counterculture undergirding the event. We shouldn't forget that Woodstock ‘69 was also a disaster zone. A massive traffic jam preceded the event. The fences were trampled. Rain created muddy conditions. Plans to provide food, water, and good sanitation collapsed. Garbage was piled up everywhere by the end of the concert. There was price gouging. Vendors were selling hotdogs for $1 apiece, four times the going rate at the time. Angry concertgoers burnt down one of the food stands in protest. Conditions were so bad that the crowd had petered out by day three. When Hendrix came on to close the event, the crowd had dwindled to around 30,000 down from a peak of almost 450,000. And yet, despite these formidable problems, the event was rescued from historic infamy by the ethos of nonviolence and mutual aid that the crowd brought with them to Yasgur’s farm. The New York Times described it this way:
When the hippie subculture surfaced en masse at Woodstock, two years after the Summer of Love, it was still largely self-invented and isolated. There were pockets of freaks in cities and handfuls of them in smaller towns, nearly all feeling like outsiders. For many people at the festival, just seeing and joining that gigantic crowd was more of a revelation than anything that happened onstage. It proved that they were not some negligible minority but members of a larger culture or, to use that sweetly dated term, a counterculture.
This counterculture awareness was not merely a source of good vibes; it also led to concrete efforts to make the festival grounds livable and enjoyable despite the many challenges. One notable example is the Hog Farm, a New Mexico-based commune that organized security and food for the event, feeding thousands of concertgoers and solving a myriad of problems throughout the three-day day event.
There were many other less organized examples of sharing, cooperation, and creative problem-solving at the event. Hundreds of people gave rides to hitchhikers. One woman reported being given a ride on horseback through the massive traffic jam. Local farmers and merchants opened their properties and stores to the concertgoers, feeding and housing them. The county government delivered food and supplies using an army helicopter. Reading these accounts, it is easy to imagine the event as a massive pilgrimage wherein the pilgrims were helped along their journey by strangers they met on the road. In fact, when you combine the mutual aid rendered by hippies within the crowd and the more traditional aid offered by local people, we may be looking at an event that represents the very best of America.
Woodstock ‘99, on the other hand, represents the worst of America. In that crowd, I saw thousands of angry young white men who have no real idea why they are so angry, whose anger is fickle and easily redirected by Fred Durst or Alex Jones or Donald Trump or whatever other charismatic trickster arrives on the scene with the power to move the mob. I saw a sea of individuals with no real investment in one another, but all of them craving entertainment as if it is the food of the gods and dying to know what comes next. I saw the true face of capitalism—the price gougers and greedy corporatists and the mountains of empty $4 plastic water bottles piling up around our feet.
For all the things that went wrong at Woodstock ‘69, that event was a success because it exemplified the best aspects of American culture, people taking care of each other in a non-transactional way and coming together to create community in the most unexpected places. Woodstock ‘99 failed because from start to finish, it was a walled-in corporate bonanza that prioritized profits above all else.
There is no generational argument to be made in comparing these two events, no meaningful contrast between Boomers and GenXers. After all, just a few months after Woodstock ‘69, another big music festival at Altamont descended into violence and mayhem. A more useful comparison might be to think of these festivals as representing two possibilities that always exist within American society. We can be the big friendly, supportive crowd that looks out for one another because it is the right thing to do, or we can be the angry, shit-stomping mob that tears the place down because we’re bored and disappointed and emotionally infantile. The choice is always there.