By Jonathon Norcross
Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage is the first installment in HBO’s freshly launched Music Box docuseries. Executive produced by Bill Simmons, the creator of ESPN’s wildly successful 30 for 30 series, Music Box aims to do for music what 30 for 30 did for sports and its first outing is certainly compelling, albeit heavily editorialized.
The Woodstock music festival of 1999 was, as this film’s title cheekily suggests, everything the original 1969 fest was not. Instead of positive vibes and hope for a radically different future, 1999 wrought angst and destruction. While Michael Wadleigh’s masterful 1970 documentary Woodstock unfolds like a fairy tale, Garret Price’s Woodstock 99, just released on HBO Max, unravels like a horror story.
The film chooses a pretty conventional approach, delivering lots of shocking archival footage of the festival interspersed with talking heads that can’t help but spell out the moral of the story. This is perhaps the film’s greatest weakness. Unlike Wadleigh’s Woodstock, which presents the festival and its attendees in a relatively nonjudgmental manner, Woodstock 99 feels at times like a college sociology class. It explicitly tells its audience how to interpret what we’re seeing and wants to make sure those messages are hammered into our brains.
Perhaps this approach is justified, however, considering that the mythologizing of the original 1969 festival is blamed for the idealism that led to the 1999 iteration. It was assumed by festival promoters that the experience of blissed-out, drugged-out kids dancing in the fields of an upstate New York dairy farm could easily be recreated by future generations. Instead, Korn and Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock came along and essentially told the baby boomer hippies to go f*** themselves. Woodstock 99 suggests that boomer nostalgia and naivete caused a disaster and so this time around, the film documenting the festival will be sure to call out the toxic attitudes that went undiagnosed in 1969.
It is certainly true that the permissiveness of the 60s counterculture caused its share of destruction. Amir Bar-Lev’s wonderful 2017 docuseries on the Grateful Dead, Long Strange Trip, effectively makes this point, noting that the band’s refusal to judge the more nefarious characters infiltrating their formerly joyful concerts caused some Dead Head devotees to depart the scene. Perhaps if the Woodstock 99 promoters had learned this lesson long ago, the 99 disaster could’ve been avoided. But ultimately they, like so many of their contemporaries (as Family Guy once memorably phrased it), lost the values but kept the weed.