clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

‘Woodstock 99’: HBO doc recalls would-be peace fest that degenerated into vandalism and violence

Eye-opening footage captures the muddy, bottle-throwing, fire-setting chaos.

People throw debris into a bonfire at Woodstock ’99, the chaotic festival in Rome, New York, that is recalled in a new HBO documentary.
Peter R. Barber/AP

You watch the thousands of overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male young twentysomethings who are throwing bottles, pushing and shoving one another, tearing down chunks of plywood and turning them into crowd surfboards, sliding around in mud and excrement and even setting fires at Woodstock ’99, and you think:

Where are these guys today? Most of them would be in their early to mid-40s, many of them presumably married with children. If they watch this documentary, will they shake their heads at their behavior, or crack open a brewski and toast the good times?

As we see in the journalistically sound and historically valuable HBO documentary “Woodstock 99: Peace, Love and Rage” the organizers of this festival marking the 30th anniversary of the original “Three Days of Peace and Music” mass gathering wanted to duplicate that ’69 vibe when they secured a former Air Force base in Rome, N.Y., circled it with a 12-foot fence and welcomed some 200,000 concertgoers to a weekend-long event featuring Wyclef Jean, Dave Matthews Band, Counting Crows, Jewel — and a plethora of rock and heavy metal acts, including Korn, Bush, Kid Rock, Limp Bizkit, Rage Against the Machine, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Metallica, Megadeth and Godsmack.

To say the organizers fell short of that goal is an understatement.

While they couldn’t control the 100-degree temperatures, they WERE responsible for the $4 price for a bottle of water (that’s $6.50 in today’s dollars), the $12 slices of pizza, the overflowing portable toilets, the paucity of water fountains and the lax security. “Woodstock 99” shows organizers either being unable or unwilling to deal with the mounting issues over the course of the weekend and refusing to take responsibility for the madness and the mess — sentiments some of them STILL express in present-day interviews.

Introducing the film, director Garret Price says, “In telling the story of Woodstock ’99, it would have been really easy to structure this as a comedy, poking fun at all things late 1990s — the way people dressed, the music they listened to. But in reality, as that weekend unfolded, it played out much more like a horror film.”

“Woodstock ‘99” follows the traditional concert documentary format of interviewing attendees, journalists who covered the event, organizers and some of the major participants — but by far the most valuable element is the archival footage from the festival itself. “I remember a lot of chaos … and a lot of white men, a lot of white boys I should say,” says attendee Liz Polay-Wettengel. “A lot of white boys wearing backwards baseball caps.”

Young men climb on a toppled tower at Woodstock ’99.
Stephen Chernin/AP

We see overhead shots of the crowds milling about the vast, former military base and the wall that had been erected to keep out interlopers — a rather incongruous setting for a festival ostensibly about peace and love and togetherness. “I remember thinking, ‘How is this called Woodstock?’ ” says Moby, who played the festival. “It would have made much more sense if it had been called Army Base Rock ’99 Featuring Limp Bizkit.”

The pay-per-view cameras fixated on topless women, some of whom were groped by men. Female artists onstage heard chants of, “Show us your t---!” Promoter John Scher says, “It was the most promiscuous [event] of my lifetime. Guys in their early 20s tend to be horny 24 hours a day.” Some performers, such as the Offspring’s Dexter Holland, called out the assailants from the stage and told them to knock it off. Other lead acts were more interested in riling up the crowd, as when Kid Rock made his entrance looking like a stereotypical pimp in a huge white fur coat and white hat, complete with walking stick, and at one point exclaimed, “Monica Lewinsky is a f---ing ho, and Bill Clinton is a goddamned pimp!”

By the time Limp Bizkit took the stage on Day 2, the venue was becoming increasingly filthy as cleanup efforts were nonexistent, the showers and the portable toilets were overflowing with urine and excrement, people were bathing in the water fountains — and the so-called “Peace Patrol” seemed powerless to do anything about the assaults on women, the smashing of ATMs, the destruction of property. (The final official totals reported 1,200 injuries, 44 arrests and four alleged sexual assaults. There’s little doubt the actual numbers were much higher.) “This is 1999, motherf-----s!” says lead singer Fred Durst. “Take your Birkenstocks and stick ‘em up your a- -.” Concertgoers started ripping off sheets of plywood from the observation towers.

John Nello of Crystal Lake, Illinois, scavenges through the trash after the final day of Woodstock ’99.
AP

By the time the Red Hot Chili Peppers were playing on Day 3, towers had been knocked down and fires were being set everywhere. The band’s response: playing a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire.” To be sure, some of the acts at Woodstock ’99 stoked the flames of rage and resentment, but at the end of the day, responsibility for rude and crude and in some cases criminal behavior lies with those who committed those acts.

Director Garret Price was right. This is no period-piece dark comedy. On many levels, it’s a horror film.