Stream of the Week: Woodstock 99: Peace, Love and Rage
Content warning: this article contains mentions of sexual assault.
Woodstock ‘99 was billed as “Not your parents Woodstock.” Boasting a line-up featuring Korn, Metallica, Rage Against the Machine and of course, Limp Bizkit, it’s clear that there was a lot of testosterone going into this edition. But can the music really be blamed for what went down? That’s one of many questions analyzed in this new HBO documentary which accomplishes a whole heck of a lot in its two-hour runtime. Many of the comparisons have the filmmakers drawing parallels with the original Woodstock as well as with the more modern Woodstock ’94. And while both of those festivals had their problems (remember the infamous “brown acid” announcements?) nothing compared to the sheer anarchy that occurred at Woodstock ‘99. The question “what went wrong,” can’t simply be met with just one single answer.
Much time is focused on the setting of the festival, a former air force base in Rome, NY. The irony of a festival promoting peace and love taking place inside the gates of war isn’t lost on the filmmakers. The primary reason for the site? Security fencing around the perimeter. Both previous Woodstocks saw many jump-and-climb fences which led to both festivals losing money. That wasn’t an issue at this iteration, but the heated tarmac and lack of shade or grass created its own issues as temperatures surged into 100+ degrees Fahrenheit all weekend. That the promoters chose to charge $4 for bottled water (which unfortunately isn’t that farfetched, twenty years later.) was fuel to the fire.
And sure, the aggressive nature of the lineup certainly added to the situation. Moby, who ends up being one of the voices of reason later in the documentary, initially comes off as sour grapes when he gripes about the machismo and bravado on display with the line-up. Oddly, almost all the performers interviewed are well-spoken and positive influences. Friday night co-headliner The Offspring stopped the show to chastise the prevalent sexual assault happening towards female crowd-surfers. Their set, which was kicked off by destroying mannequins dressed like the Backstreet Boys was highly regarded. As was KoRn’s set, which saw massive amounts of aggressive moshing. Even the pride of Canada, The Tragically Hip made a brief cameo, albeit for a joke at our expense. Their set too was highly regarded. Another set that recently received more attention after his tragic death was DMX’s.
But perhaps the most talked about set of the weekend happened early Saturday evening. More than 24 hours away from the fires and destruction of one of the speaker towers towards the end of Sunday headliner Red Hot Chili Peppers set, aggression was at an all-time high when Fred Durst and Limp Bizkit took the stage. While promoter John Scher (we’ll get to him in a moment) completely unloads on Durst for failing to “calm the audience down,” others defend his actions by saying he was playing a part. Aggressive music has always been great at releasing negative energy but it certainly was getting quite dangerous during Bizkit’s set, especially the perfectly titled Break Stuff, where panels of a nearby art installation were removed and then used to crowd surf on. Many injuries occurred and Durst’s mic was temporarily muted but the set eventually finished, and the show continued. Throughout the film, the diary of a young fan who sadly passed away is presented which allows a birds-eye view into the excitement many youth had attending this show.
Amidst the tragedies, there is some comic relief presented, often at the expense of the attendees. Some of the best and most enlightening interviews are from attendees, one of whom candidly explains getting caught up in the excitement of a riot by throwing frozen doughnuts into a bonfire. The worst interviews, however, go to the promoters, especially John Scher. He’s portrayed as a villain early on downplaying the violence and lack of free water, but it’s in the documentary’s third act where he delves into full Bond-villain territory. He blames MTV’s coverage of the first two days of the festival for the riots, as if attendees had somehow been tuning into MTV between battling in human excrement. Scher constantly puts his foot in his mouth and then makes a completely appalling comment when asked about the horrendous sexual assaults that occurred that weekend.
Overall, this is a very well put together documentary. With the amount of content crammed into the documentary, there are a few things that get overlooked such as the reason the Red Hot Chili Peppers decided to encore with a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s Fire(it was a promise to the late guitarists’ sister) when the riots had begun. Some of the asides are confusing and aimless – did we really need to bring up Metallica vs Napster again? Others, on the other hand, hit the nail on the head, such as the discussion of how aggressive music from the beginning of the decade came from pro-feminist, pro-LGBTQ+ artists like Nirvana and Pearl Jam before being overtaken by frat boys.
I’d recommend this documentary for any music fan, but be prepared it deals with some heavy topics especially towards the end. The music choices are excellent as the end credits roll to the extremely appropriate Offspring hit The Kids Aren’t Alright.
Woodstock 99: Peace, Love and Rageis available to stream on Crave with the Movies + HBO package.