Late Saturday night at the riotous Woodstock music festival of 1999, things went sideways at a rave headlined by British DJ Fatboy Slim. Someone commandeered a van and decided to drive it slowly through the throng. Organizers cut the performance out of concern for peoples’ safety. When the crowd protested the decision, Fatboy Slim declared his innocence. “It’s not my fault,” he insisted. “It’s not my fault.”
It is true enough that Fatboy Slim wasn’t to blame. That lack of accountability is the key theme that runs through Trainwreck: Woodstock ‘99, a riveting and often unsettling three-part series streaming on Netflix that revisits the mayhem and irresponsibility of the infamous music festival that took place 23 years ago in Rome, N.Y.
If the original Woodstock in 1969 was three days of peace, love and music, the Woodstock of 30 years later was four days of rape, arson and toxic masculinity on the hoof. Officially a rock doc, Trainwreck’s true genre is more like horror.
This isn’t an exercise in documentative rubbernecking. Director Jamie Crawford attempts to nail down how the calamity happened and who was responsible. Most of blame is heaped on festival promoters John Scher and Michael Lang, but they’re hearing none of it. They blame the wild-eyed vandalism on the few bad apples of 200,000 music fans. “You can’t the vet the people who buy your tickets,” Lang says.
True, but you can at least try to control them. During a mid-festival news conference, Scher and Lang gloss over the woeful lack of security and other breakdowns in organization and infrastructure. Rome was burning, and Nero himself would have admired the way these guys fiddled.
Lang was one of the founders of the Woodstock brand, having been a co-promoter of the iconic 1969 festival also held in upstate New York. Though the mud-swamped site of that under-organized event was declared a state of emergency by local authorities, historically the inaugural Woodstock enjoys a groovy reputation. The second Woodstock, in 1994, is mostly remembered for its mud-throwing crowd members.
For 1999, organizers chose a decommissioned airbase as the site. The miles of asphalt would produce no mud, but neither would it offer any shade. Oppressive heat and a lack of clean water resulted in a dirty, dehydrated and exhausted audience. Vendors charged US$4 for a bottle of water; price gouging became a bone of contention for concertgoers.
Lang and Scher were both interviewed for Trainwreck. The former appears to be somewhat feeble-minded – he died shortly after the filming – while the latter comes off as unapologetically profit-motivated at best, callous at worst. Asked about the multiple charges of rape arising from the festival, Scher mentions that some women were walking around topless.
The music was heavy on male nu-metal acts (including Korn, Rage Against the Machine and Limp Bizkit) that attracted chest-pounding rubes and belligerent frat bros. Sheryl Crow, one of the few female artists on the bill, was subjected to catcalls. But that conduct was merely boorish compared with the testosterone-fuelled fire-setting and destruction that would follow.
In an attempt to explain the crowd’s unhinged behaviour, Scher says the “lunatic fringe” were entitled, angst-ridden and “fearful of growing up.” This is beyond rude behaviour at a festival – it is representative of the era’s cultural decay.
Lee Rosenblatt, a young assistant site manager blames the riot on the greed of promoters, whose bottom-line focus led to shortcuts and contributed to the crowd’s frustration. “The user experience was never a consideration,” he says.
Whatever the causes, a burn-it-down mentality was pervasive. With fires raging on the grounds during the horrific final night, Rome’s mayor asked Red Hot Chili Peppers singer Anthony Kiedis to help calm the crowd. Kiedis declined; the Peppers went ahead and played Jimi Hendrix’s Fire to close the festival.
On camera, Lang seems either unwilling or unable to grasp the gravity of the discussion at hand. Though there are many adjectives that could be used to describe him, one of them needs to be incompetent. There are better ways to run music festivals than the way he did.
After 1999′s debacle, Lang unsuccessfully attempted to hold a 50th-anniversary Woodstock in 2019. He hadn’t realized what this film makes abundantly clear: Woodstock died in 1999.
All things Woodstock
The Woodstock story is easily the most documented festival franchise. The following films, books and audio recordings are invaluable to understanding the festival’s rise and fall.
Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage. The 2021 HBO documentary from director Garret Price addresses the ill-fated 1999 Woodstock with unflinching cynicism.
Woodstock 94. Featuring one performance each from 27 artists (including Green Day, Bob Dylan and Peter Gabriel), the two-CD set serves as a sampler of the middle Woodstock.
The Road to Woodstock. Michael Lang, co-founder of the 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair, gives his account of the generation-defining event. The book was published in 2019.
Woodstock. The Oscar-winning 1970 documentary from Michael Wadleigh is considered an essential portrait of 1960s American counterculture. The anniversary director’s-cut Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music was released on Blu-ray in 2014.
Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert, and a Life. Woodstock resident Elliot Tiber’s memoir was the basis for Ang Lee’s 2009 comedic drama Taking Woodstock.
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