'Woodstock 99' draws a line from the ugliness of that festival to the present

'Woodstock 99' draws a line from the ugliness of that festival to the present

Posted: Jul 23, 2021 11:31 AM
Updated: Jul 23, 2021 11:31 AM

Before there was the Fyre festival -- with its absurdly comic snafus and dueling documentaries -- there was Woodstock 99. The HBO documentary "Woodstock 99: Peace, Love and Rage" examines that event -- described as morphing from a comedy into a horror film -- and finds within it a dire warning, dealing with a lot more than just botched logistics.

Held 30 years after the original Woodstock, the plan to mount another musical extravaganza on an abandoned military base in Rome, N.Y. seemed like a good idea at the time. But as the interviews make clear, the three-day concert came at a particular moment, one where the anger welling up in the young (mostly) White men who attended, as expressed through the bands that performed, came spilling out in ugly and violent ways.

Coinciding with the festival's 22nd anniversary, director Garret Price's documentary catapults the viewer back to that not-all-that-long-ago time, when getting separated from your group meant potentially losing them, before cellphones became ubiquitous.

The simmering tensions could be seen early in the hostility expressed toward sponsoring network MTV, whose shift to teen-oriented groups and acts angered those who felt they were losing the channel, having come to see the likes of Metallica, Megadeth and Limp Bizkit.

The sexual politics are also disturbing, with attendees having embraced the "Girls Gone Wild" ethos. Many of the women walked around topless as young men egged them on, shouting at actress Rosie Perez to disrobe (not in those words) when she came out to introduce an act.

Although multiple sexual assaults were reported, the video underscores what several of the attendees suggest, that the violence and aggression toward women wasn't captured by those statistics.

Only three female acts were booked (Jewel, Sheryl Crow and Alanis Morrissette), a clear miscalculation. Moby, also among the performers, recalls feeling that the situation was "already off the rails" after a few hours, with the crowd becoming increasingly hot, sweaty and volatile.

Price does an excellent job of contextualizing the cultural forces that swirled around that era, from what New York Times columnist Wesley Morris calls "the fallout of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal" to the Columbine school shooting to the movie "Fight Club," whose protagonist mirrored the toxic masculinity on display.

Plumbing broke down and fires broke out, while several performers appeared to throw the verbal equivalent of gasoline on them. MTV's Davey Holmes singles out Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst for his recklessness in winding up the crowd, noting, "Even a liquor commercial says, 'Please drink responsibly.'"

The most jarring aspect of "Woodstock 99" is the extent to which the images here feel like a preview of coming attractions, capturing resentment that has echoed through the past two decades on various fronts. Journalist Maureen Callahan cites the "umbilical cord between the dark, sexual, cultural, political underbelly of the country at that time and where we are now."

As the documentary notes, the troubles experienced at Woodstock were remedied at subsequent gatherings, with the successful launch of the Coachella Music Festival not long after. Yet "Woodstock 99" makes a compelling case that the sewage from that weekend didn't stop flowing when the music stopped, metaphorically if not literally.

"Woodstock 99: Peace, Love and Rage" premieres July 23 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO, which, like CNN, is a unit of WarnerMedia.

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