Like a Brueghel painting with a blasting nu metal beat, Woodstock ’99 left a trail of greed and destruction in its wake, a sampling of mob mentality at its foulest. The fiasco continues to fascinate: Last year brought the HBO Max documentary “Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage,” and now comes the three-part Netflix docuseries “Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99,” a leaner, less flashy and more focused account of how poor planning, profit-mongering and dudes gone wild led to one giant mess of a music festival.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. Five years earlier, Woodstock ’94, held on a farm near Saugerties, NY, had its share of problems, but it’s mostly remembered for the mud fights brought about by a rainy weekend. Yet that show didn’t make money, largely because gate-crashers made it through a flimsy perimeter fence.
This time, the organizers, especially promotions bigwig John Scher, were determined to make money. You could play a drinking game built around every time Scher says the word “profit” (as in, “We absolutely had to make a profit”).
To this end, the festival was held at a former Air Force base in Rome, NY, with a long stretch of asphalt dividing the two stages, perfect for bouncing blazing heat back onto human skin. Festival producers subcontracted food and beverage services to price-gouging vendors, giving festivalgoers something to be angry about immediately (especially after they had to give up their own water bottles upon entry). Security was ill-prepared and overwhelmed from the start. Trash piled up on the ground. Drinking and bathing water mixed freely with sewage. And the sun was merciless.
Into this mix add thousands of drunken young men, exhorting women to show their breasts — nudity was rampant at Woodstock ’99, and multiple sexual assaults were reported — and eager to, as the Limp Bizkit song puts it, break stuff. Scher booked artists including Bizkit, Korn, Kid Rock and Red Hot Chili Peppers, none of whom are known for the whole peace-and-love thing. But these bands are what they are. When Scher tries to blame Bizkit frontman Fred Durst for being Fred Durst, you might feel like directing the promoter to the nearest mirror.
“Trainwreck” does two things well. It provides a vivid tick-tock of the spectacle, including those intoxicating elements that led some attendees, interviewed today, to say it was all worthwhile. The mosh pits for Korn, for instance, are marvels of kinetic danger on a mass scale, scary but thrilling. Then, as the situation devolves further and further, the series makes clear this was a systemic failure of epic proportions, rife with missteps from the start.
Without letting the crowd off the hook, “Trainwreck” lays the bulk of the blame at management’s feet, even as Scher tries to peddle the a-few-bad-apples theory of kids run amok. As one clear-eyed security guard puts it, “If it looks like the venue doesn’t care, why should you care?” Meanwhile, Scher’s partner, original Woodstock co-founder Michael Lang, took more of a passive role here, freely admitting he knew nothing about many of the acts Scher booked.
This train wreck ultimately had more in common with Altamont, the doomed, free Rolling Stones concert in the Bay Area from 1969 that was plagued by violence and mismanagement, than the original Woodstock. Nobody has clamored for another encore, and you have to wonder why they ever would.
m“Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99”: Limited series. With Limp Bizkit, Korn, Sheryl Crow, Red Hot Chili Peppers and others. Directed by Jamie Crawford. (TV-MA. Three episodes at approximately 45 minutes each). Available to stream on Netflix starting Wednesday, Aug. 3.