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Woodstock 99: Rage instead of peace and love

Dan Webster

Above: Kid Rock performs at Woodstock 99. (Photo/HBO Max)

Movie review: "Woodstock 99: Peace, Love and Rage," directed by Garret Price, featuring Moby, Michael Lang, John Scher, Kid Rock. Streaming on HBO Max.

It would be so easy to blame Joni Mitchell. It was she, after all, who mythologized 1969’s Woodstock music festival in the song that, recorded later by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, became the dominant view of that event – even more so than Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 documentary film.

“By the time we got to Woodstock,” Mitchel wrote, “We were half a million strong – and everywhere there was song and celebration.”

She doesn’t mention, of course, the rain and mud and confusion and more than a few drug overdoses. It’s all there in Wadleigh’s film, though. Even so, memory is a tricky thing. Not everybody has the same view of the past – or of the present, for that matter: Just look at those who can’t – or simply won’t – accept the results of the 2020 presidential election.

In the case of Woodstock, most recollections still carry the patina of innocence, portraying the view of some 400,000 so-called children of god, “caught in the devil’s bargain,” struggling to get themselves back to the garden. And however you view that perception, it’s not one that many people – other than the sponsors – are likely to apply to what occurred 30 years later at Woodstock 99.

Documentary filmmaker Garret Price makes that point clear enough in his film, now showing on HBO Max, titled “Woodstock 99: Peace, Love and Rage.” Hoping to make the most of their connection to the original event, which was famously held on Max Yasgur’s farm located just outside Bethel, New York, the sponsors of Woodstock 99 had the brilliant idea of holding their event not on grassy farmland but on the concrete runways of an upstate New York abandoned military airfield.

Talk about getting “caught in the devil’s bargain,” concert attendees had to navigate between stages set more than a mile apart, traversing over concrete runways in 100-plus-degree weather. And those attendees – estimated, again, to be some 400,000 strong – overwhelmed the facilities. It didn’t take long for the porta-potties to become full, and for raw sewage to seep out, making the resulting muddy areas between runways a particularly foul mess.

Even worse, Price’s film makes clear, the atmosphere – fueled not just by the heat and conditions but also by the greed of sponsors who sold water for 4 bucks a bottle, the same price as beer – gradually grew ugly. Spurred on by some of the acts – which included the likes of Korn, Metallica, Kid Rock and especially Limp Bizkit – an atmosphere in which women freely bared their breasts evolved into one in which the audience of mostly 20-something males demanded that they do so.

Price clearly has an agenda, and it isn’t a positive one. Yet unlike some documentary filmmakers, he lets the sponsors – both Michael Lang, who had been involved in the 1969 festival, and John Scher – offer up a variety of excuses. But neither, Scher in particular, comes off as credible – Scher even blaming MTV reporter Kurt Loder for exaggerating the situation.

More credible are the several attendees whom Price interviews, including one who had been hired as a security guard yet who admits to having done pretty much nothing except walk around and listen to the music himself. Add to that the footage of young men tearing down the brightly painted wooden walls surrounding the concert site, of those walls feeding the fires that were then set, not to mention the comments of musicians such as Moby who claim to have been frightened by what they were experiencing, and you have a convincing case that Woodstock 99 embodied far more rage than peace and love.

That may have been true in 1969, too. After all, the country at that time wasn’t all that far away from the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers, of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Plus there was a little something called the Vietnam War still raging.

Yet despite all that, things seemed far more innocent then. Far more so than 30 years later. And even more so than they are here in 2021.

So, I guess the question is, where is Joni Mitchell now that we really need her?

A version of this review was broadcast previously on Spokane Public Radio.

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