It is mildly surprising that it took so long for a documentary about the 1999 edition of the Woodstock music festival to be made. After all, this was an epic, epoch-defining debacle that deserves more scrutiny than, say, the Fyre Festival, a preposterous fiasco from 2017 that crashed before actually happening yet has already prompted two films about it.
Garret Price’s HBO doc “Woodstock 99” neatly captures a cultural moment, albeit a destructive one. The first in a documentary series created by Bill Simmons, the film may be subtitled “Peace, Love and Rage,” but the first two ingredients were in short supply on those scorching July days 22 years ago. The event quickly devolved into a hellscape of overflowing porta-potties, hungry and thirsty festivalgoers, horrific sexual assaults, arson and even deaths. Much of the footage is hair-raising, especially the women being groped and the mobs of young white men whipping themselves into a frenzy of aggressive stupidity, aimless anger and turbo-boosted misogyny. This is these dudes’ coming-of-age as an aggrieved demographic, and it’s frightening.
Price attempts to put the festival in context, framing it against a period of economic growth tempered by malaise: Bill Clinton’s impeachment and the Columbine High School shootings happened earlier that year, for example, and Y2K angst was growing. Add testimonies from attendees and journalists, and (too short) excerpts from the live performances, and the proceedings often feel rushed. The film could easily have been longer.
As with most post-mortems, “Woodstock 99” tries to figure out how it all went wrong, and comes up with a deadly combination of factors: a merciless environment, thoughtless programming (three female acts did not counterbalance seas of aggro headliners like Limp Bizkit, Kid Rock, Korn and Metallica) and botched logistics. The issue of water bottles costing $4 comes up a lot. This was “somewhat on the high side,” says John Scher, one of the promoters, before coolly adding, “If you’re going to go to a festival, you bring money with you — this was not a poor man’s festival.”
Later on, Scher, who emerges as the embodiment of cynical corporate villainy, argues that the women facing a barrage of verbal and physical abuse were “at least partially to blame for that” because they “were running around naked,” and accuses the media, notably MTV News, of making Woodstock 99 look bad. Even now, he just can’t give up on his delusion of the festival being a success.
Woodstock 99: Peace, Love and Rage
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes. Watch on HBO platforms.