The Nightmare of Woodstock ’99 Persists in HBO’s New Documentary

By now, Woodstock ’99 holds a particularly wretched place in the collective memory. The mere mention of the doomed festival’s name likely brings to mind images of apocalyptic bonfires, rivers of human waste, and Fred Durst screaming a song about breaking shit to a sea of bros who are doing just that. It is the stuff of a recurring nightmare—the Pinocchio jackass scene, with jean shorts.

The story of Woodstock ’99, the second and perhaps final sequel to the fabled 1969 gathering in upstate New York, was extensively covered in real time, and has been unearthed and revisited every few years ever since. The three-day event’s grim descent into sexual violence, looting, and rioting has come to epitomize the mix of toxic masculinity and corporate greed that reigned in pop culture at the end of the 20th century. But every generation gets the Woodstock documentary it deserves, and HBO’s Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage may stand as the definitive account of a fateful moment when Gen Xers and millennials joined forces in complacent idiocy, enabled by delusional baby boomers.

In 2021, it’s hard to watch Woodstock 99 without comparing it to Questlove’s recent Summer of Soul, a joyful film documenting the stunning performances (and fashions) during a previously obscure series of 1969 concerts at a public park in Harlem: the so-called Black Woodstock. Woodstock 99, of course, is nearly the exact opposite—the portrait of a summer without soul. The performer lineup reflects the aggressive, almost entirely male-denominated rock charts of the time (not only Limp Bizkit, but also Korn, Rage Against the Machine, and Metallica); the styles tend toward raised middle fingers and backwards baseball caps; the signs and chants demand women to “show your tits.” With exacting detail, the film recounts how a supposed countercultural coming-of-age devolved into a pampered-white-dude tantrum.

Over the course of a weekend that aired live and uncensored via pay-per-view, Woodstock ’99 led to three deaths, 1,200 admissions to onsite medical facilities, 44 arrests, and numerous accounts of sexual assault. On the final night, an overturned Mercedes-Benz went up in flames as the Red Hot Chili Peppers—with Flea completely in the buff—wound down the festival with a spectacularly ill-timed cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire.” MTV, which had been covering the event closely, pulled its workers off the garbage- and excrement-strewn scene—the network’s chief news correspondent Kurt Loder later said it was “like a concentration camp.” Hundreds of state troopers in riot gear eventually quelled the rampaging crowd (and about a dozen bonfires); references to Lord of the Flies and Apocalypse Now crop up in the film’s vintage dialog.

Executive produced by sports media impresario Bill Simmons, Woodstock 99 is the first installment in a series of HBO music documentaries created by the Spotify-owned company he founded, The Ringer. One of the film’s consulting producers and talking heads is Steven Hyden, a former Pitchfork contributor who helmed an eight-part podcast about the festival for The Ringer two years ago—few people have studied Woodstock ’99 more closely than him, and the film is a strong showcase of research and reporting. Director Garrett Price, who previously oversaw a documentary about the late actor Anton Yelchin, draws deftly from the vast trove of available footage. He also wields an impressive array of lengthy interviews with festival organizers, attendees, security staff, emergency personnel, artists, and music journalists. Woodstock 99 aims to tell the story of the ill-fated festival, examine why it went wrong, spotlight the pre-millennial angst of American youth, and reassess the 1970 Woodstock documentary’s idealism—which is a lot for a two-hour movie! It mostly ends up as a solid summation of the reams of coverage that have come before it.