It’s 2022, and—as though we didn’t have enough contemporary problems on our minds—people can’t stop talking about Woodstock ’99. The wave of reappraisals of an event that made instant history as one of the biggest music-festival catastrophes since Altamont began on the 20th anniversary of the debacle, with the Ringer’s eight-part podcast Break Stuff. Last summer, Ringer honcho Bill Simmons kicked off his HBO rock-doc series Music Box with Woodstock ‘99: Peace, Love, and Rage, a divisive film that sparked weeks’ worth of discussion. And now, here comes Netflix with Trainwreck: Woodstock ‘99, a three-episode docuseries on the same topic.
This level of redundancy isn’t exactly anomalous these days (see also: Netflix and Hulu’s dueling 2019 Fyre Festival docs). The rules of streaming-wars engagement pretty much dictate that if HBO has a hit Woodstock ’99 doc, Netflix has to make one, too. These reconsiderations of a miserable, testosterone-poisoned Y2K rock festival have also coincided with a reevaluation of the sexist narratives that surrounded female celebrities of the era, like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. What makes the ongoing obsession with Woodstock ‘99 unique is that there is still no widespread agreement on who deserves the brunt of the blame for the event’s descent into Lord of the Flies-level chaos. Were teenage millennials too angry and entitled to embrace Woodstock’s peace-and-love spirit, or had the boomers peddling $4 bottles of water on the scorching asphalt of a decommissioned Air Force base sold those kids out? This conflict speaks volumes about the fractious relationship that has since developed between the two generations.
In that respect, the largely gratuitous Trainwreck (recently retitled from the more evocative Clusterf**k) proves to be surprisingly illuminating. By devoting each 45-minute episode to a single day of the festival—and keeping the self-indulgent tangents that plagued its predecessor, on everything from Napster to nu-metal’s appropriation of rap, to a minimum—director Jamie Crawford (The Interrogator) allows viewers to trace many of the organizers’ biggest missteps as they reverberate throughout the weekend and determine culpability accordingly. The mud-caked frat boys screaming “show us your tits” at every female person who crosses their sightline, no matter how young or clothed, could make you pretty nauseated. But the proverbial adults in the room, Woodstock ’69 impresario Michael Lang (who sat for interviews before his death in January) and mega-promoter John Scher, come out of the series looking even worse.
Crawford devotes more time than Woodstock ‘99 director Garret Price did to setting up the festival’s backstory. Thirty years after the convergence at Max Yasgur’s farm that is still widely remembered as a hippie Eden (it wasn’t), Woodstock was at once a brand with huge cultural cachet among the 40- and 50-somethings who’d ascended the ranks of corporate America and a business that seemed incapable of making money. While the ’69 festival took something like a decade to recoup its costs, Lang re-teamed with the original organizers and added Scher to produce a 25th-anniversary event in 1994 that was both relatively peaceful and another economic disaster, with gatecrashers far outnumbering paid attendees. For Woodstock ’99 to work, Lang and particularly Scher knew they needed to turn a profit—which meant they absolutely had to find a venue secure enough to stop people from sneaking in without a ticket.
That helps to explain the fateful choice of venue: Griffiss Air Force Base, a military installation whose closure a few years earlier had kneecapped the small central New York city of Rome. For then-mayor Joseph Griffo, Woodstock was a chance to reinvigorate the local economy; he also evidently enjoyed rubbing elbows with rock stars. (There is archival footage of Griffo repeatedly failing to christen the stage with a Champagne bottle wrapped in a tie-dyed T-shirt, a darkly comic harbinger of things to come.) For Lang and Scher, the decommissioned base’s 3552 acres of buildings and tarmacs offered an enclosable space with plenty of existing infrastructure and, theoretically, the capacity to accommodate 250,000 paying concertgoers through three nights of camping. They transformed one aircraft hangar into a 24-hour rave and built an eight-mile “peace wall” around the base’s perimeter, its purpose of protecting their investment thinly concealed by hippie murals. Tight budgets meant farming out the food service to vendors with the power to set exorbitant prices and, instead of hiring real security guards, recruiting a “peace patrol” one attendee describes as essentially “kids with yellow T-shirts.”
Why these men agreed to answer questions about their roles in the festival in not one but two documentaries is a mystery. Scher was responsible for the most egregious comments in the HBO film. Asked about the dozens of sexual assaults that allegedly happened at Woodstock ’99, he claimed the numbers had been inflated and noted: “I am critical of the hundreds of women that were walking around with no clothes on and expecting not to be touched.” Never mind that many of the “women” he’s referring to were actually underage girls, or that plenty of men ran around naked all weekend in relative safety. In both docs, Scher simultaneously insists most people had a great time at the festival and blames the violence that culminated in Sunday night’s firelit riots on a handful of “knuckleheads,” a rowdy Limp Bizkit set (“I didn’t take into account what a jerk Fred Durst is,” he tells Crawford), and MTV’s ostensibly hysterical coverage.
In Trainwreck, Lang—whose legacy of over-promising and under-delivering would culminate in 2019 with a heavily hyped Woodstock 50 festival so beset by legal drama, high-profile artist withdrawals, and the loss of a venue, that it was canceled just weeks before it was scheduled to happen—comes off as somewhat more sensitive than Scher but equally clueless. He felt bad about the prevalence of sexual assault, Lang says, even if his ability to intervene was limited because “it happened in secret.” (Never mind all the footage of women being groped while crowdsurfing in front of the stage.) On the riots that broke out Sunday night, as fires set by audience members who’d been given candles to light during a gun-violence vigil: “I thought it was a terrible ending for a decent weekend.” Ultimately, “that’s what it was. You go on.”
No one else interviewed for the series, from MTV VJ Ananda Lewis to Fatboy Slim, seems to share the two organizers’ blasé attitudes. “A girl should be able to have fun just like a guy,” says Korn frontman Jonathan Davis, in stark contrast to Scher’s textbook victim-blaming. Although both docs also feature harrowing anecdotes from attendees, most of whom were teenagers at the time, some of the most damning testimony comes from the lower-level Woodstock ’99 staffers Trainwreck consults. There are behind-the-scenes accounts of overtaxed medical tents, overflowing porta-potties, and kids climbing over plywood walls to invade a sound tower nicknamed “the Alamo.” Someone recounts how the employees barricaded themselves in the production office to survive the riot. Another person marvels over the spectacularly poor decision “to give flames to an audience that was three days into being treated like animals.”
Now middle aged, these interviewees talk about the festival the way veterans talk about war. And the well-supported conclusion most arrive at is that the root of the catastrophe wasn’t the heat or the drugs or the chest-thumping bros or the aggro nu-metal acts. (In an insightful essay on the HBO film, New York’s Craig Jenkins argued that reconsiderations of Woodstock ’99 had yet to convey the appeal of nu-metal, or to give innovative, political acts like Rage Against the Machine their due. Trainwreck makes the same omission.) No, the culprit was greed. Greed that cut costs by skimping on amenities and gouging on necessities. Greed that fostered a Girls Gone Wild atmosphere by licensing out an uncensored Woodstock ’99 pay-per-view package (though it must be said that neither the Netflix nor the HBO doc abstain from recycling shots of visibly inebriated, topless young women, either). Greed that ignored dozens of obviously unsafe circumstances and choices for the purpose of packing in young people and pocketing their cash.
Even the angsty kids at Griffiss picked up on it; graffiti left behind on Monday morning read “END PROFIT$TOCK” and “Listen to Rage: down with Profitstock!” This doesn’t, of course, excuse any form of violence that took place over the weekend, but it does cast the smashing of onsite ATMs and plundering of merch in a different light. Whether consciously or not, the riot captured an audience of teens and 20-somethings on the Gen X-millennial cusp, the same year the oldest millennials turned 18, waking up to the reality that the Woodstock their parents talked up as a utopian experience could never really be recreated. Instead, the baby boomers were going to keep repackaging their cultural legacy in debased form to be consumed and thereby monetized by kids craving the relatively authentic counterculture of the ‘60s. And when the younger generation called them out on it, the boomers turned the accusations around, blaming “anarchists” and “bad apples” in the crowd. Twenty-three years later, this is still the party line.
If this all sounds familiar, that’s because the Woodstock ’99 model—a circular firing squad of parental selfishness and denial, and frustrated filial acting-out—has since become the dominant intergenerational dynamic. It’s present in the discourse over student loan forgiveness and the hand-wringing over why broke 30-year-olds aren’t buying enough houses or having enough babies. It was the subtext of era-defying movements like Occupy Wall Street and teapot tempests like the avocado-toast flame wars of 2017. Every conversation about climate change is also a conversation about an older generation gorging on air conditioning and gasoline while a younger generation watches the oceans rise. For a mostly redundant account of an extremely bad music festival, Trainwreck has plenty to say about the way we’ve lived since that nightmarish weekend.
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