By Noah Gittell
I don’t know how I avoided going to Woodstock ‘99, but I’m grateful that I did. I was 19 years old, home for the summer, and a fan of about half the bands on the bill, which included Metallica, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Rage Against the Machine. Maybe the ticket was too expensive, or I was just too lazy to make the trip to Rome, N.Y., where the festival was held. Either way, sometimes the best decisions are the ones you don’t make.
The disaster that unfolded over three days was chronicled in real time by MTV News, but the new documentary, “Woodstock ‘99: Peace, Love, and Rage”, tries to paint a more comprehensive picture. Drawing from on-the-ground footage and interviews with journalists, attendees, and festival organizers, director Garret Price creates a portrait in full of a singular cultural moment that revealed much about America — its past, present, and future.
It’s also a fundamentally cinematic moment. Even at the time, the festival felt like it was custom-designed for film, right down to its escalating three-act structure. The festival was held at an abandoned air force base, an ominous location for a festival built on Sixties radicalism. On day one, the attendees noticed the warning signs: the rising temperature, poor access to water, and a civilian security crew more interested in partying than keeping the peace. On the second day, the toilets broke, and people started getting rowdy. By day three, right around the time the Red Hot Chili Peppers covered Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire”, the scene devolved into pure chaos. Walls were torn down, fires were set, and reportedly hundreds of sexual assaults had been committed. The police were called in to forcibly end the festival.
With such a dramatic story in hand, the filmmakers don’t have to do much to make an entertaining documentary, and they didn’t. “Woodstock ‘99” is overflowing with footage, analysis, and musical performances, but it’s short on editorial decisions. There is no shortage of factors that contributed to the disaster, and the filmmakers touch on as many as possible. There were the greedy organizers who authorized exorbitant prices for food and especially water, which proved a source of tension when the temperature rose into the high ’90s. The bands themselves egged on, or, in some cases, even incited the destruction. On the hunt for broader cultural trends, the film’s talking heads identify white male rage and misogynism — Monica Lewinsky gets name-checked — as underlying culprits.
Because of the sheer volume of ideas to get to, “Woodstock ’99” thrums along at a brisk pace, careening towards its real-life catharsis in the third act. At times, the wide scope of the analysis overwhelms the narrative, and certain elements beg for a narrower but deeper approach. The failures of the organizers, who are the same folks who organized the original Woodstock in 1969, deserve more scrutiny — although the statement of organizer Michael Lang that the women who were sexually assaulted were “partially to blame” speaks volumes — but that would have taken our attention away from the riveting festival footage itself, which is the real draw here.
In fact, a bolder film might have dispatched with the talking heads altogether and simply let the images do the talking. The video footage, mostly culled from MTV News, is evocative, visceral, and at times terrifying. Watching thousands of sweaty, shirtless men and topless women transform into an uncontrollable mob makes “Woodstock ’99” a rare and important document: an on-the-ground chronicle of a society, albeit a small one, slowly devolving into anarchy. The rage of a violent, impotent citizenry is on full display. Squint at those images and you can see all the ills of the next two decades: political violence, mass shootings, insurrections. And you can see it catching everyone by surprise.
The images speak for themselves. The film should have trusted them a little bit more.
<“Woodstock ’99” premieres on HBO and HBO Max on Friday, July 23.>