By Ed Symkus
The premier entry in the HBO documentary series “Music Box” shows how everything about the concert celebrating the 30th anniversary of Woodstock goes terribly wrong, then gets worse.
Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage premieres on HBO at 9 p.m. on July 23.
If you’re old enough to have gone to Woodstock, the three-day festival in 1969 that, for the most part and quite inexplicably, worked as a celebration of “peace and music,” you were likely too old to be even mildly interested in checking out Woodstock 99.
I went to Woodstock a couple of weeks after I turned 19. There were moments when I was hot or cold or hungry or tired, but there was a sense of joy in the air, a feeling of community, a realization that everyone there was in it together … and there was all of that music. What I remember of it, I remember with fondness.
When, early in 1999, I caught wind of a plan for a 30th anniversary edition of the event, I instinctively ignored it. Now, after sitting through the two-hour documentary Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage, I can attest that if I believed in lucky stars, I would be thanking them.
Directed by Garrett Price (Love, Antosha), the film isn’t exactly a direct condemnation of the events that unfolded on an abandoned Air Force base in Rome, NY, over three days in July. It’s more an examination of what went wrong and a warning that nothing as poorly planned and executed as this unmitigated debacle should ever happen again.
Told chronologically, it’s structured as a story with numerous plot elements that start to go out of control, then merge together, grow in strength, and are eventually sucked into a whirlpool of despair. That telling is done partly through lots of archival footage, including brief segments of performances and abundant shots of the jam-packed, seemingly undulating, and mostly young-white-male crowd. But there are also plenty of talking heads, ranging from the show’s producer-promoters to the artists to attendees — some from the days of the festival, some looking back on it now. Price also includes contemporary comments from pop culture and music journalists, none of whom were at the event, all of whom approach it with a cynical eye. That’s fine, since everything they talk about is backed up by foreboding, often horrifying footage.
Price also adds segments from people who were there and choose to wax philosophically on what went down. Electronic artist Moby, who performed in the chaotic Rave Tent, laments what happened to’90s music. “I’m baffled how it went from the progressive, enlightened values of Kurt Cobain and Michael Stipe to misogyny and homophobia and the rape-frat boy culture that was at Woodstock 99.” Singer-songwriter Jewel, who played one of the two main stages, observes “The ’99 Woodstock seemed like it was trying to relive a nostalgic moment, along with commercialism and capitalism, but not having a real soulful purpose for the show.”
Rape-frat boy culture? Yes, one segment examines, in graphic detail, talk of numerous sexual assaults on women. Capitalism? Bottles of water were selling for $4 — in 1999. It was hot, it was crowded, it was filthy — portable toilets were backing up. That wasn’t just mud those folks were lolling in.
Some of the artists attempted to channel the glory of the original concert. But when Wyclef Jean, on solo guitar, broke into “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the reference went over the heads of most of the drugged, drunk, and dehydrated audience members. And when Bush’s Gavin Rossdale listlessly started up a “Gimme an F” chant, it was clear that no one in the crowd had ever heard of Country Joe & the Fish.
But too many of the performers picked up on and decided to fuel the late-’90s anger that was so prevalent in the already riled-up throngs jammed up against each other. Rapper DMX unsettlingly got them to chant the “N” word during a call and response. Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst whipped the crowd into a frenzy shouting the caustic lyrics of “Break Stuff.” When multiple huge nighttime bonfires began to blaze, Rome’s Mayor, Joseph Griffo. asked Red Hot Chili Peppers singer Anthony Kiedis to help quell the masses so firefighters could come in. Kiedis launched the band into a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire.”
The film’s phases run from, at the start, positive excitement of a big concert. That is followed by a bad dream when the event breaks down by the end of the first day. Finally, the proceedings head into nightmare territory. It makes for distressing, slack-jawed viewing.
Still, Price doesn’t point a finger of blame for what happened at anyone or anything — not the careless, shortsighted promoters or the irresponsible performers or the depraved, unruly crowd. He lets you choose.
Ed Symkus has been reviewing films and writing about the arts since 1975. A Boston native and Emerson College graduate, he co-wrote the book “Wrestle Radio, USA: Grapplers Speak,” went to Woodstock, collects novels by Harry Crews, Sax Rohmer, and John Wyndham, and has visited the Outer Hebrides, the Lofoten Islands, Anglesey, Mykonos, the Azores, Catalina, Kangaroo Island, and the Isle of Capri with his wife Lisa.
His favorite movie is And Now My Love. His least favorite is Liquid Sky, which he is convinced gave him the flu. He can be seen for five seconds in The Witches of Eastwick, staring right at the camera, just like the assistant director told him not to do.