Netflix’s riveting new documentary about Woodstock ’99 has few heroes, many villains

I was off in a world of my own in 1999 — I spent the millennium New Year’s Eve surrounded by 5,000 people at a wild all-night circuit party/rave in the South Beach convention center — so that is proof enough that current events were not on my radar that year.

So I have been ignorant (or simply don’t remember) the horrible events that transpired in 1999 when promoters tried to recreate 1969’s fabled Woodstock that year in Rome, New York.

Thanks to Netflix, you, too, can get caught up on those three days in July 1999, thanks to their new 3-episode documentary “Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99”.

I found it so engrossing I ended up binge-watching all three episodes.

If you had to boil those three days of rage, mayhem and violence down to a few things, it all started when the event was turned into a purely commercial enterprise where promoters tried to wring as much money out of the young people as possible with high ticket prices, and a ban on bringing food and water into the festival where, once inside the perimeter fences, exorbitant prices reigned.

And, despite charging the equivalent of $240 per ticket in today’s dollars (plus service fees) the concert grounds themselves — a punishing asphalt-covered abandoned Air Force base that is also a Superfund site — were inadequate to the needs of the crowd that was baked in temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Not enough shade, non-existent trash removal, expensive food and water, and toilets that began backing up and overflowing onto the concert grounds on the first day, and the mood of concert-goers quickly turned sour.

Add to all of these disasters the fact that promoters had booked as headliners bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit, whose young frat boy followers were prone to hypermasculinity and violence at their concerts during the best of times, and the fuse was lit.

MTV’s on-air personality Kurt Loder noted at the time, “It was dangerous to be around. The whole scene was scary. There were just waves of hatred bouncing around the place… It was clear we had to get out of there… It was like a concentration camp. To get in, you get frisked to make sure you’re not bringing in any water or food that would prevent you from buying from their outrageously priced booths. You wallow around in garbage and human waste. There was a palpable mood of anger.”

In its review of the documentary, The Guardian says:

A brisk and often horrifying watch, Trainwreck is effective at ramping up the tension and building a sense of dread and impending disaster. Each episode follows a day of the festival, from an optimistic start on Friday through to the apocalyptic scenes in the early hours of Monday morning, using a ticking clock to count down to each fresh catastrophe.

There were omens of an ill-tempered weekend from the start. The crowd was – by many accounts and from the plentiful footage of the time – macho and aggressive, a “frat boy” culture dominating the event. A cardboard sign saying “show us your tits” – which someone had taken the time to make – is waved at female artists from the crowd. Sheryl Crow bats away sexist heckles with more patience than the audience deserve. Teenage girls talk about being groped and molested as they crowdsurf.

It isn’t until the final few minutes of the last episode that its most notorious and terrible legacy – reports of multiple rapes, including in the moshpit – is fully addressed, to the clear distress of some of those who worked in the team, and the frankly appalling defensiveness of others.

There are obvious villains here, though their shocking lack of self-awareness makes it debatable whether they would see themselves that way. There is a lot of finger-pointing and blame-shifting, from one organiser to another, from the organisers to the crowd, from the crowd to the organisers. Was it the fault of the nu-metal acts who stirred everyone up, or the bookers who didn’t vary the tempo of the acts on the stage? Was it the kids who interpreted those old 60s notions of free love as a licence to maraud, or the profiteering managers who failed to provide even the most basic infrastructure that might have placated 250,000 “high as balls” attenders? Was it the culture, or the environment? Was it greed, or naivety? One of the most telling slogans, sprayed on what barricades were left standing, reads: “Down with Profitstock”.

It should be noted that the 1969 Woodstock had its own problems, including food shortages that you can read about in this excellent article. And, as with the 1969 concert, the 1999 concert featured incalculable amounts of drugs and alcohol. But that makes the 1969 concert all the more remarkable. Despite its own share of problems that will always come with staging a three-day rock concert for 400,000 people in the open air, the 1969 event remained largely peaceful.

As for Woodstock ’99, I don’t want to dump on all the young people who were there. They were so clearly victimized over three long, hot days by the promoters that I think the rage that built up and eventually overflowed in widespread violence against the venue, entertainers and promoters was partially justified, notwithstanding the misogyny and sexual violence.

You can read the rest of Rebecca Nicholson’s Guardian review here.

Trailer for the documentary is below.

Watch the actual documentary on Netflix at this link.

Leave a Reply