Woodstock ’99 Documentary Review, Now Streaming on HBO

Woodstock ’99 was supposed to be sex, drugs, and rock & roll. Instead, what we got was three days of mob violence, sewage spills, and Jamiroquai. If you weren’t there, congratulate yourself on at least one shrewd life decision. (If only the decision not to be born yet.) If you went, prepare for some nasty flashbacks in the new HBO doc on the infamous festival, Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage. (It premieres on July 23rd.) In terms of a handy metaphor for the death of the Nineties dream, you can’t beat a music festival on an Air Force base, which is just a giant asphalt parking lot with barbed wire around it. The crowd burns it all down, while the Red Hot Chili Peppers play Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire.” Move over, Rover, and let heavy-handed cultural symbolism take over!

I was there to cover the festival for Rolling Stone. Barely any other magazines wanted to cover it; nobody was expecting a big news story. But Woodstock ’99 turned into one of the ugliest spectacles I’d ever seen, leaving me and the rest of the music audience to ask, “How did this happen? How did the Nineties feminist pop-culture explosion get betrayed so fast? How did our anti-misogynist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic ideals from the freaking Tibetan Freedom Concerts get crushed down into this?”

Woodstock '99 Documentary Review
Woodstock ’99 Documentary Review

This hard-hitting doc is like Summer of Soul in reverse — instead of a feel-good music celebration, it’s a long day’s journey into “Break Stuff.” (Disclosure: I had no involvement with the production of this film, but my voice often appears in the doc, from a interview I did for a podcast. I’m heard explaining why I slept on the white cardboard pizza boxes, since it was easy to tell if they’d been urinated on yet. I stand by this decision.)

Woodstock ’99 began with crowds gathered in Rome, New York, in the miserable Cold War death temple of the Griffiss Air Base, suffering a brutal July heat wave, with four-dollar water bottles, no shade or shelter, a security team of untrained amateurs. Then it got worse. Female fans got sexually assaulted, while male fans chanted, “Show your tits!” Eight assaults were reported; many more went unreported.

John Scher was one of the two Woodstock ’69 vets (along with Michael Lang) who put on the show. He’s taken a lot of criticism over the years for doing a shoddy job, so why not let him speak for himself? It’s only fair, right? Here’s Scher in this doc, weighing in on the festival’s sexual violence. It’s worth quoting in full, because it’s one of the 10 stupidest things any human has ever uttered on camera, and you spend the whole scene asking yourself, Did he just say that? Yes, in fact, he did. Take it away, John:

“There’s no question that a few incidents took place. But if you go back in the records of the police and state police and stuff, we’re not talking about 100. Or even 50. We’re talking about 10. I am critical of the hundreds of women that were walking around with no clothes on, and expecting not to be touched. They shouldn’t have been touched, and I condemn it. But you know, I think that women that were running around naked, you know, are at least partially to blame for that.”

Note: this isn’t something dumb Scher said way back when, in a defensive rage. No, it’s what he says now, after having 20 years to think it over. He’s given careful consideration to how it all went wrong, and he’s decided who’s to blame: the girls. Obviously, when you’re talking about human beings, you use “who” rather than “that,” but in Scher’s mind, he’s not discussing human beings at all.

The Offspring’s guitarist Noodles sums up the vibe of Griffiss Air Base. “There’s a festival grounds in Germany that was literally built by Hitler. We’ve played there a bunch of times — it’s a great venue, a lot of fun. The air base was less hospitable than the venue built by Nazis.”

Water cost four bucks a bottle, and the ATMs ran out of cash early. If you had a bottle, you could fill it with water from the free sinks — except when they got defouled from people taking baths. The Port-O-Potties leaked bodily waste everywhere. The doc has squalid footage of desperate fans squeezing under trucks and trailers, just to get out of the sun for a minute. Most of us crammed into the Emerging Artists hangar, because it had the only roof around. Other people tried to stay cool by rolling in the mud. Aaah…that wasn’t mud.

Woodstock ’99 features stars like Korn’s Jonathan Davis, the Roots’ Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, Jewel, Moby, and Creed’s Scott Stapp. Fred Durst didn’t talk, which might be why he gets singled out for absurd abuse. Limp Bizkit’s set is selectively edited for maximum Durst-shaming (scape-Dursting?), with nary a mention of when he urged the crowd, “If someone falls, pick ‘em up.” Sorry, but Fred Durst gave a shit about our personal safety, which is much, much more than I can say for the people whose job it was to care.

The doc has way too much tired finger-pointing from media folks, on a festival none of them actually attended, discussing music none of them seem to care about. It’s far more effective interviewing real fans and witnesses, especially a candid EMT who recalls, “I worked Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Rita, and Hurricane Sandy. But whenever people ask me about Woodstock ’99, I always say it was the greatest disaster I ever went to.” Woodstock ’99, Humanity 0.

Nobody wants any responsibility for this mess — over the course of two hours, you will see it blamed on Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, DMX, Brad Pitt, Anthony Kiedis, Durst, Metallica, Korn, Napster, Columbine, the Doors, Kurt Loder, Carson Daly, Matt Dillon, My So-Called Life, techno, and the Y2K bug. Scher claims it was all a MTV News conspiracy, grousing, “Really, the biggest problem was that MTV set the tone.” (Honestly, this guy is to self-righteous rants what Jonathan Davis was to kilts.)

But it’s the young white males who provide the scariest footage. In this doc, you see horrifying brutality, done to and by kids whose faces aren’t blurred. Hope you don’t see your dad. Hope you don’t see your mom. Really hope you don’t see yourself, past or future. I see myself, unfortunately — I’m on screen for just a moment, witnessing one of the many loathsome scenes I reported on in my Rolling Stone cover story, and it looks as ugly as I remember it.

Something that’s never mentioned in the film: a few weeks later, it was time for the MTV Video Music Awards. The Beastie Boys won an award for “Intergalactic.” Ad-Rock spent his speech talking about Woodstock — the only person to mention it all night. He said, “I read in the news and heard from my friends all about sexual assaults and the rapes that went down at Woodstock ’99 in July, and it made me feel really sad and angry.” He wanted to talk about how to keep this shit from happening again. It was a real, unfaked, straight-from-the-heart moment. And then it was over. But more than 20 years after Woodstock ‘99, the question lingers of how this happened — and so does the anger.

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