HBO’s Woodstock ’99 Documentary Is a Dark Warning

Just as concerts return, a new film reveals the cynicism and cultural rot that led to one of the most notorious shows ever.

A crowd at one of the Woodstock '99 stages
Catherine Lash / HBO

We’re halfway through the first summer of full-capacity crowds at American arenas and nightclubs after pandemic-induced hibernation. Have you attended a glorious, mythmaking concert to mark the occasion?  Perhaps Foo Fighters reopening Madison Square Garden gave you chills, or maybe you air-tromboned to the band Chicago at New Jersey’s first big comeback show (NJ.com’s review: “Enjoyment came in many forms Thursday night”).

Or perhaps you’ve had a less lovely live-music experience. One recent viral news story described impalement and alleged strangulation at a rave in Kentucky. Another, from this past weekend, featured someone throwing a shoe at DaBaby. When I went to see a DJ set in my neighborhood, a disturbingly intoxicated guy danced up to me, grabbed my water bottle, guzzled everything in it, and, like some sort of anti-hydration dragon, immediately and theatrically spit it out. Then there’s the COVID of it all: more than 1,000 infections traced to a Dutch music festival, a Foo Fighters’ team member testing positive, talk of possible new shutdowns and cancellations in response to the Delta variant.

It is true that seeing your favorite musician perform “is the most life-affirming experience,” as Dave Grohl wrote for this publication early in the pandemic. Questlove’s new hit documentary, Summer of Soul—about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which is sometimes referred to as the “Black Woodstock”—beautifully highlights how concerts can create community and positive change. But for an expectations check, a different documentary about a different Woodstock is worth watching. In this season when many events will be overhyped as momentous, the new HBO film Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage offers a chilling demonstration of how greed, cultural rot, and the vagaries of crowd behavior can make a concert into a generation-defining thing for all the wrong reasons.

The general contours of the Woodstock ’99 story are nearly as legendary as the original Woodstock’s. To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the miraculous gathering of hippies at a dairy farm in upstate New York, organizers (including the 1969 event’s co-founder Michael Lang and the veteran promoter John Scher) put together the third major iteration of the world’s most famous music festival (the second, Woodstock ’94, had gone off pretty well). A bill dominated by heavy-metal acts—Korn, Metallica, Limp Bizkit—attracted about 400,000 attendees for three sweltering days at Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, New York. Dehydration, disrespect, and violence quickly overshadowed the music. Crowd members trashed the grounds, cavorted in sewage-tainted mud, and set fires. Four women reported rapes to police, and many more later spoke of being sexually assaulted.

Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage, a riveting visual essay directed by Garret Price and produced by The Ringer, does not complicate the public image of the festival so much as confirm its veracity in disgusting detail. Footage captures bellowing bros groping female crowd surfers, white audience members rapping along to every N-word DMX shouts onstage, and Carson Daly getting pelted with junk by concertgoers who think of MTV as girly and uncool. Much of this material is freakishly cinematic, and the film often—especially when it comes to the topic of how many topless women were at Woodstock ’99—can’t shake a queasy feeling of voyeurism. In one shot for the ages, angry attendees push down a wall featuring a PEACE! LOVE mural. Another sick irony: Candles that were intended for a vigil to mourn the victims of the Columbine shooting are implicated in the final night’s destructive fires.

Relying on interviews with music critics, Woodstock ’99 attendees, staff members, and performers (Jewel, Moby, Korn’s Jonathan Davis), the documentary makes two intertwining arguments for why mayhem erupted. One is cultural: The festival embodied the misogyny that ruled late-’90s pop culture. Footage from the movies Fight Club and American Pie, as well as clips of Girls Gone Wild, illustrates the extent to which white-male anger and lust were valorized by the media of the time. The nu-metal boom cleaved hip-hop and grunge from any social consciousness and peddled a sourceless, sludgy angst. But although the film is clearly criticizing all it portrays, it can’t help but attest to the demonic talent of figures such as Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst. He radiates committed, dead-eyed charisma as he leads the crowd through a violent rendition of the song “Break Stuff.”

Fires at Woodstock 99
HBO

The other culprit for the disaster of Woodstock ’99, according to the documentary, is avarice. The original Woodstock had no fences and was free for many to attend; concertgoers busted through the barriers in ’94. In ’99, the organizers wanted a more fortified location, so they selected a decommissioned military base where mile-long strips of shadeless asphalt would separate each stage. Water bottles were sold for $4 apiece, and Scher—who is cartoonishly callous throughout the documentary—argues to this day that thirsty festivalgoers should have come prepared with cash. Sanitation and in-venue security were, it appears, not high priorities. These conditions didn’t just endanger the crowd—they made people mad. Revelers scrawled messages such as GREEDSTOCK throughout the venue, and the documentary suggests that the riots and fires that broke out were, on some level, rebellions against exploitation.

It may seem incoherent to portray attendees of Woodstock ’99 simultaneously as toxically masculine terrors and righteous anti-capitalists. But the filmmakers and their interviewees draw connections between culture and commerce: Moby, for example, describes how the sensitive disaffection that Kurt Cobain stood for in the early ’90s drifted into oafish nu metal by ’99 with the help of labels and radio promoters looking to amass huge audiences. It’s also notable that the festival’s organizers booked a lineup of bands that sold well in the moment but didn’t embody the gentle, inclusive spirit of the original Woodstock: Only three female performers, for example, were on the bill. So the industry created the fed-up crowds that came to Woodstock ’99, and then those crowds got fed up with the forces that had created them. One interviewee, a teenager at the time of the festival, expresses mystification at having evolved from a mild-mannered kid to a destructive Lord of the Flies character over the course of the weekend. “When in Rome, I guess,” he says.

All in all, the ’99 fest was a vortex of cynicism that might seem impossible to replicate. Still, the documentary is so vivid as to instill dread at the thought of all the gatherings to come. Are we not presently in a moment of overblown hype, simmering resentments, and logistical chaos? How many events this year will bill themselves as once-in-a-generation testaments to the communal spirit, and how many of them will really just be motivated by desire for profit at any cost? As new viral variants sweep through the population, who can trust that concert organizers’ decisions about cancellations or safety measures will be made in good faith?

To anyone facing such anxieties, it is comforting to watch Summer of Soul,  which features incredible performances by Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, and a host of other important Black voices during a time of reckoning and transformation in America. One major assertion of the documentary is that the free 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, as Gladys Knight put it, “wasn’t just about the music”—it was about community, and society, and a moment in history. Everyone involved, at least according to the film’s portrayal, oared together in a peaceful and progress-minded direction. Getting a mass of people on the same wavelength is a rare and powerful thing that we’ve all missed since March 2020—but such power, we’d also best not forget, can be used for many different ends.