A new Netflix documentary is blaming Woodstock ’99 on three main factors: Ego, naiveté and money.
“Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99″ debuted on the streaming service Tuesday as a three-part docu-series chronicling the 30th anniversary Woodstock festival held on July 22-25, 1999, at Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, NY Performers included Limp Bizkit, KoRn, Metallica, Jewel, DMX, Kid Rock, Dave Matthews Band and Red Hot Chili Peppers, but the concert is most remembered for its chaos, including oppressive heat, looting, vandalism and fires.
The series, originally titled “Clusterf**k,” dedicates each episode to each day of the three-day music event, starting with warning signs before the festival even begins. New York State Senator Joe Griffo, who was mayor of Rome from 1992 to 2003, struggles to christen the stage with a bottle of champagne wrapped in a tie-dye shirt and later admitted it felt like “foreshadowing.” Woodstock ’99 opener James Brown initially refused to go on stage because he hadn’t been paid in advance. Misogynistic behavior emerges early, as young men yelled for Sheryl Crow to show her breasts Friday afternoon and female fans were groped while crowd-surfing.
Festival workers and attendees alike were daunted by the former military site’s unforgiving asphalt layout, spread out over 6,000 acres; the East and West stages were about a mile-long walk from each other. Griffiss Air Force Base, which had closed in 1995, was largely chosen due to its existing infrastructure and eight miles of fencing to prevent people from sneaking in for free like previous Woodstocks, but it was far from ideal for a music festival.
By the end of the event, three people died; at least 700 people were treated for heat exhaustion and dehydration; multiple women reported sexual assault and rape; 44 people were arrested; hundreds of fake passes were confiscated; and numerous cars, tents, booths and ATMs were destroyed.
Who’s to blame for what went wrong? Another documentary, HBO’s “Woodstock ’99: Peace, Love and Rage” (released in 2021), pointed fingers at a lot of issues, including the modern rock lineup, the culture of the late 1990s, and the heat as temperatures neared 100 degrees (and felt as hot as 118 on the tarmac).
But Netflix’s “Trainwreck” focuses on three main problems and the people behind each of them.
Michael Lang, who organized the original Woodstock festival in Bethel, NY, in 1969 and the muddy 25th anniversary festival at Saugerties in 1994, envisioned ’99 bringing back a message of peace and love in the wake of the Columbine school shooting. Even in a new interview for the Netflix series, he still saw the events in Rome as mostly positive.
“I thought it was a terrible ending for a decent weekend,” said Lang, who filmed the new interview three months before his death in February.
Artists waffled between paying tribute to original Woodstock performers and wanting to own Woodstock ’99. KoRn whipped the crowd into a frenzy on Friday night, Wyclef Jean encouraged people to throw plastic bottles as he performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” like Jimi Hendrix on Saturday, and Limp Bizkit told everyone to literally “Break Stuff.”
“You could see Fred Durst’s id, ego and superego battling it out on stage,” said reporter Dave Blaustein, who covered the event from inside the mosh pit. People climbed the sound stage, ripped plywood off the walls, and started crowd-surfing on it, including Durst.
Some attendees clearly wanted to make their own mark on Woodstock, acting out for the cameras as MTV broadcast the event for pay-per-view subscribers and highlighted wild behavior, drugs, nudity and more. One guy was shown smashing his own head with a piece of wood and yelling, “I told you I’d get on TV, motherf—ers!”
Organizers were accused of cutting corners, especially with security. Lang said he didn’t want government influences or a “police state,” so instead they hired a “peace patrol” — unarmed, young and largely inexperienced “kids in yellow shirts” to try and control hundreds of thousands of people. One patrol member, identified only as Cody, admitted he even sold his yellow shirt to one festivalgoer for $400, giving them virtually unlimited access to the backstage.
“We needed way more security than we had,” said one interviewee.
“If you’re going to put on an event, your first responsibility is the safety of the crowd,” said KoRn singer Jonathan Davis in the Netflix doc. “But they were completely unprepared. It was just like, ‘Let’s just get a quarter-million people together and let’s see what happens.’”
There also appeared to be an underestimation of how much water, bathroom facilities, and medical supplies would be needed. By Saturday, there were long lines for the few showers on site and runoff from port-a-potties meant human waste was mixed with mud, which people jumped in. By Sunday, public health inspector Joe Patterson said all the drinking water samples were contaminated as festivalgoers complained it looked brown.
The most naive moment happened on the final day when Lang and Dan Gross, co-founder of the anti-gun violence group PAX (now known as The Center to Prevent Youth Violence), agreed to hand out 100,000 candles with hopes of ending the festival with a candlelight vigil for victims of gun violence. Lee Rosenblatt, the assistant site manager, tried to get them to stop because the fire marshal didn’t approve of it, but Lang and Scher pushed on.
Sure enough, the crowd put candles and lighters in the sky as Red Hot Chili Peppers performed “Under the Bridge.” But then a large fire started at the back of the festival grounds. Scher tried to calm the crowd to make room for a fire truck on site, but firefighters allegedly refused to respond to the situation fearing their own safety.
“It was fun at first and then it turned out to be like, ‘I gotta get outta here. I’m like not having fun anymore,’” said one concertgoer named Keith. “I really thought, like, I was gonna die there at one point. Like my mom’s gonna see me on the news, dead at Woodstock.”
“We absolutely had to make money,” said Woodstock ’99 promoter John Scher.
Hundreds of thousands got in for free to the 1969 and 1994 festivals, and millions were at stake to make the 30th anniversary event a success. Tickets were $150 (or more) for the highly commercialized event, led by MTV and its uncensored round-the-clock coverage.
“Everything was sponsored out of its mind,” said Fatboy Slim, whose DJ set was interrupted when concertgoers drove a van into the rave hangar.
Concession prices were outrageous, as vendors were allegedly allowed to set their own prices, such as $4 for a bottle of water and $10 for a sandwich. (In 2022, those prices would be $7 and $17.) One concertgoer said she saw price-gouging as the weekend went on, with bottles of water selling for $12 each ($21 with today’s inflation) by Sunday afternoon.
The frustration grew and grew as more people felt like they were getting ripped off, angry white-boy acts took the stage, and fans started turning on popular MTV personalities, throwing items at “TRL” host Carson Daly. The situation escalated when RHCP singer Anthony Kiedis ignored a request from Griffo to calm the crowd and went back on stage for an encore performance, covering Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire” as more fires emerged in the crowd.
The Netflix documentary shows more of the chaos that ensued afterwards than last year’s HBO film. Walls were torn down, ATMs were broken into, concession stands were looted, trucks with gas tanks exploded in a fiery blaze, and people fled for their lives. Comparisons were made to war battles and iconic scenes from “Lord of the Flies” or “Apocalypse Now.”
“Once you become part of a herd, you become like animals,” Blaustein said. “And all of these people were acting like animals.”
Some have compared Woodstock ’99 to 2017′s Fyre Festival, which Netflix famously tackled in another documentary, “Fyre: The Famous Party That Never Happened.” But the 1999 Woodstock festival did happen, and its troubles were part of the public opposition that eventually killed efforts to stage a 50th anniversary Woodstock concert at Watkins Glen in 2019.
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“Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99” is now streaming on Netflix.