Content Warning: Woodstock ’99: Peace, Love, and Rage features explicit scenes and descriptions of sexual assault.
Everyone remembers the fires. But do you know the story of how they happened?
Woodstock ’99: Peace, Love, and Rage on HBO Max is a documentary about a music festival, but it is definitively not a music documentary. The disastrous mass gathering in central New York may have featured a genre-spanning cross-section of the top MTV artists of the moment, but the violent and filthy reality on the ground is the real focus for director Garret Price.
Threading together heaps of archival footage with new interviews from artists, attendees, and — notably — the event’s two prominent masterminds, Peace, Love, and Rage reflects on a particular moment in history. But it goes further, too. Price’s examination amounts to a searing indictment of the latent anger in U.S. society, particularly among white men, that was just starting to boil over as the 20th century came to a close.
The documentary necessarily strays far beyond the boundaries of the decommissioned military base in Rome, New York, where Woodstock ’99 unfolded. We visit the White House and the U.S. Capitol. We gaze out over Times Square from the vantage of MTV’s Total Request Live studio. We even spend a little time in Columbine.
That context is crucial to understanding how Woodstock ’99 turned into a mud-and-shit-spattered riot that ultimately had to be defused by law enforcement. The documentary even takes some time to linger on that police response, as a crowd of predominantly white attendees — including sexual assaulters and other criminal mischief-makers — was peacefully disbanded.
The movie aims for the heavy lift, is what I’m saying. Price and his crew aren’t content to offer a straight recounting of a single, violent weekend. The argument is that it’s impossible to understand how Woodstock ’99 fell apart without looking at everything from the evolution of pop music and its audience to the widespread and multifaceted anxiety surrounding “Y2K” fears.
Context is crucial to understanding how Woodstock ’99 turned into a mud-and-shit-spattered riot.
The angry rhetoric and violence spurred from the stage by artists like Kid Rock or Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst, for example, speaks directly to what was a changing face of popular music in 1999. The progressive politics and boundary-breaking performers of the too-brief grunge era — exemplified by Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and a contrite Beastie Boys — quickly gave way to anger-fueled nu metal, with rockers like Durst and Rock weaving homogenized gangsta rap, and no small amount of cultural appropriation, into their work.
While Woodstock ’99 crossed through multiple genres in its lineup, the headlining acts were primarily white, male rock stars who sold anger to an audience that craved it. When they took the stage, that anger manifested in the crowd’s behavior. But of course, it’s the promoters who planned the events and curated this lineup who own the original sin of Woodstock ’99, and Peace, Love, and Rage doesn’t let them off the hook in the slightest.
Michael Lang, a co-founder of the original festival who is described at one point as the “Willy Wonka” of Woodstock ’99, is the idealistic half of the promoter duo that takes center stage in this documentary. His ill-conceived idea to recreate Woodstock for a new generation failed to account for what that generation actually looked and acted like.
If the Woodstock of 1969 was a reflection of the hippie ideals of universal peace and love, the Woodstock of 1999 mirrored a much darker moment. With the exception of a few seemingly token female performers and socially conscious rappers, the cross-section of artists assembled for the ’99 festival channeled the anger and fear of a (again, importantly: predominantly white) generation that had lots of pent-up aggression and no strong devotion to fight for a particular cause.
The real villain of Peace, Love, and Anger, however, is Lang’s co-promoter, John Scher. As the more grounded half of the pair, it was Scher who led the way, speaking to the press and speaking for the festival in 1999. At multiple points, the documentary shows us a belligerent and combative Scher talking down to journalists as they raise tough but fair questions about the state of the festival.
At first, Scher and Lang come off as just one administrative piece of the disaster that was Woodstock ’99. But as the documentary unfolds, we get a clearer picture of the two men. Scher in particular is quick to blame anyone and anything other than the top-level festival planning for Woodstock ’99’s failures.
In Scher’s mind, Durst owns responsibility for setting off violence and riotous behavior. It’s MTV that owns responsibility for negative perceptions of what happened during that July 1999 weekend in central New York. Of Kurt Loder, the face of MTV News back then, Scher actually has the gall to say: “He just wasn’t on the team.” In Scher’s mind, Woodstock ’99 was a messaging failure wrought by the press, misbehaving rock stars, and “a bunch of knuckleheads” in the crowd.
Never mind the overflowing portable toilets, the dismal state of the festival’s cleaning facilities, and the grossly overpriced basic necessities, most infamously illustrated by the festival’s $4 asking price for bottled water during a brutally hot and humid weekend. And never mind, too, the widespread accounts — many captured right on camera — of sexual assault.
For any outside factors that fed the trainwreck called Woodstock ’99, there’s no denying that the festival was badly mismanaged and set up to fail.
Everything you really need to know about Scher is encapsulated in his take on that last point specifically: “I am critical of the hundreds of woman that were walking around with no clothes on and expecting not to be touched. They shouldn’t have been touched. And I condemn it. But, you know, I think that women that were running around naked are at least partially to blame for that.”
I shouted angrily at my screen when Scher just comes out and says that in the late stages of Peace, Love, and Rage. This isn’t some archival interview conducted in the weeks after the festival came crashing apart, not that this kind of take would’ve been any more acceptable back then.
Scher knowingly sat down for a 21st-century interview and said, with seemingly zero awareness of how stupid and regressive he sounded, that the women who showed up to enjoy the festival in their own way own the blame for the way men treated them. It feels like a line you’d hear from the latest perp on any given flavor of CSI series. But Scher said it, and we have to deal with that reality.
Peace, Love, and Rage is a superb accounting of a terrible event and the context that surrounded and fueled it. It doesn’t let a single person, movement, or cultural shift off the hook in laying out the failures that led to Woodstock ’99. The lasting takeaway is, as it should be, that Woodstock, the brand, is best relegated to the dustbin of history at this point. The people who wield its central vision don’t really understand the modern world, and they’re not equipped to entertain a wide audience.
It goes back to those fires. We all remember seeing images in the news of towering bonfires, stretching up into the night sky as a horde of shorts-and-tank-top-clad white men milled around to feed the curling flames. But we never really talk about what ignited the conflagration.
It was candles. Candles distributed by a nonprofit group focused on gun control. Their well-intentioned effort was to have festival attendees stage a candlelight vigil honoring Columbine victims. But festival attendees found other uses for those candles, and so the east stage burned.
It’s impossible to ignore the parallel in that irony to Lang and Scher’s efforts. While neither promoter comes out of the documentary looking great, it’s also clear that they did go into this thing with the best of intentions. The promoters wanted to put on a show that could potentially recapture what Lang saw as the magic of the 1969 festival. But their unfamiliarity with modern pop culture and inability to meet the moment spelled their undoing in the end.