What exactly happened at Woodstock ’99? Ostensibly meant to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the seminal rock festival, the three-day event quickly devolved into a mob of angry white Gen-X dudes looking not for peace, love, & understanding, but (as one prominent Limp Bizkit song would instruct) to “Break Stuff.”
It’s one of the most infamous music fests in rock history, a case study for why you don’t mix hot temperatures, an abandoned military base, overpriced water bottles, and hedonistic frat boys amped up by a steady diet of raunchy films and anger-inducing mass media.
Combine that with the rampant commercialism of the festival and the dewey-eyed agenda of old boomers feebly attempting to drum up nostalgia their audience couldn’t possibly appreciate, and you had a recipe for destruction.
For documentary filmmaker Garret Price (Love, Antosha), the relative obscurity of Woodstock ’99 in the cultural consciousness led to a perfect opportunity to tell its story in the new HBO doc Woodstock ’99: Peace, Love, and Rage. It’s a scintillating cultural document, one which not only chronicles the slow-burn horrors of a music fest spiraling rapidly out of control but which details the cultural factors that led them there.
For Price and the film itself, the fest was a crystallization of everything that had been simmering among American youth of the late ’90s: a lack of direction, especially for young white men, who turned to the angry growls of nu-metal and the transgressive fuck-you sensibilities of rap-rock. The organizers hoped to foster a new sense of freedom and good vibes; their audience, primed for mayhem and misogyny by increasingly angry and entitled popular culture, saw a chance to grope women and burn shit down.
Consequence sat down with Price to talk about his recollections of Woodstock ’99, the slow-burn horror film he ended up creating, and the many calculations you have to make as a documentary filmmaker to respect your subjects, whether living or dead. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was your take on Woodstock ’99 as it was happening?
I was in college at the University of Texas, living in my first off-campus apartment with my roommates, and we were glued to the pay-per-view that whole weekend. It’s weird, though, as all that chaos unfolded in real time, it never felt crazy to me back then — it was almost like this extreme FOMO, wishing I was there. It wasn’t until years later when I started going down a YouTube rabbit hole of reliving the performances and reading articles that I started to understand all the issues that started to unfold that weekend. Not just of the festival itself, but of America culturally.
Then when I got the opportunity to pitch for the Music Box series, they didn’t want biopics: they wanted something very much in the vein of what Bill [Simmons] did with 30 for 30 — explore these moments in music that have something bigger to say. I was like “There hasn’t been a movie made about Woodstock ’99.” And it’s the perfect window into the time in which I came of age. There are a lot of threads you can pinpoint from that time to where we are right now. Not blaming that time necessarily, but there are inherent branches you can track.
Right, Wesley Morris [of the New York Times] makes a point late in the doc that the people who made trouble at the fest didn’t just go away; they festered implicitly into the alt-right of today.
What’s interesting is that all those interviews were done before January 6th, too. There was always a struggle in how to present these points: I don’t want to say, “Hey these two groups are the same.” I never wanted that. But with the imagery, it’s hard for your brain not to go there.
When it came time to assembling all that footage, in an era before cell phones, how did you source all that stuff? What was it like going through it?
I had incredible archivists and researchers who just literally started finding people on YouTube. They found clips, and would stalk these folks on Twitter, really. This is the age when kids starting handycams and mini DV cameras to capture these moments, The tapes have been sitting in their closets for fifteen years. We’d find these kids now all grown up, and they’d start sending stuff. I wanted a boots-on-the-ground experience between archival and the pay-per-view: that was my verite footage. I wanted the movie to start off as a ’90s teen road trip movie and just regress from that into a horror film, basically.
The graininess and fuzziness of that DV footage make it feel almost like The Blair Witch Project, but if it took place at Vans World Tour.
What’s most novel about it is the way the kids act on the footage. People do perform a bit in front of cameras, but there’s some authenticity to this footage, a real contrast to the selfie culture of today. There’s this feeling in the footage of, “This will never be seen. I’m going to do whatever I want in front of this camera right now.”
And that footage is buoyed by these incredible music acts, many of which you got to interview. What was the impression you got from them about Woodstock ’99? I get the vibe it was a very dark period in their lives.
They’ve had some self-reflection, for sure. It’s also at the height of their careers, too. I didn’t find a place to put it in the movie, but the labs at Griffis Air Force Base were where the CD was patented. So there’s something really interesting about all these artists that did so well in CD sales in the ’90s, coming back to where the CD was born. I want to say it’s [not] really where the music died, but it at least changed.
There are also the attendees, many of whom were part of the rioting and looting. What was it like talking to them too, as people who’ve really had the chance to reflect on this independent of a music career?
The attendees were always whom I was most interested in talking to. Woodstock stories are just as much about the people that attended it as the artists who performed there. We got lots of points of view from different people with different experiences, and they’ve all had time to reflect on those experiences. And for Ken [the attendee who discusses his involvement in the destruction], it shows how easy it is to get caught up in this mob mentality. At the same time, when you go feeling one way, with this kind of rose-tinted nostalgia that was marketed towards you, and you start getting treated more harshly, whether you like it or not your attitude changes.
I had one promoter tell me that when you start treating your attendees like pigs, they’re going to act like it. They think Woodstock ’99 is a shining example of that. For better or worse, the modern-day festival learned a lot from Woodstock ’99.
That disconnect you mention leads to one of the major gulfs in the doc, which is between the OG Woodstock promoters peddling a sense of nostalgia that didn’t really resonate with their audience.
I think the reason the ’90s are so in right now is that people are nostalgic for the decade they were born in. So kids at Woodstock ’99 were nostalgic for the mid-late ’70s, with Dazed and Confused being popular. But Woodstock ’99 tried to push a nostalgia for the last ’60s, and the ideals of counterculture and free love. I hate to say the late ’90s were toxic, but that’s why I bring up Girls Gone Wild and Maxim and FHM, the Monica Lewinsky scandal. They created this toxic culture whether you like it or not.
My intention isn’t to blame people for what went wrong. I don’t want this to be a hit piece per se, I’m just bringing these cultural factors up. Even with the music and culture of the time, I don’t want to blame nu-metal, because I think there are interesting things about that genre of music. But if you look at some of the lyrics, they’re pretty misogynistic. And even some media that was satirical of toxic masculinity wasn’t necessarily being interpreted that way, like Fight Club and The Matrix.
They’re satirical, but kids are taking it literally. That’s why I bring up MTV and TRL throughout the doc: I think there’s an inherent danger of peddling the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears to 13, 14-year-old kids, followed by a Limp Bizkit video where he’s singing about nookie. I just think you’re asking for things.
What did you do to try to maintain that balance of recognizing these factors without placing the blame on them? Because there are figures like Moby who absolutely do place the blame on nu-metal.
Putting that stuff in, I know it feels like I’m taking more of a subjective stance. But that’s why it was important for me to put Michael Lang and John Scher in, you know? Trust me, I asked everybody involved to be a part of it. People like Jonathan Davis did get a chance to talk about bands at the time being used as scapegoats, especially right after Columbine. That kind of narrative of pointing fingers, saying that the entertainment of children is why kids are shooting up schools, I think is bogus.
But musicians have always been scapegoats over the years, so I think it’s interesting to lay out that context among this festival.
Speaking of which, I have to believe talking to John Scher was a trip. There’s this palpable sense of denial that comes through when he’s talking about why Woodstock ’99 failed.
I like John as a person; I know he comes up as the antagonist in this whole story, but I think he also represents a generation that believes a lot of the same things he does, you know?
People keep asking me what positives if any, Woodstock ’99 had. I think it’s kind of the last egalitarian festival. It was all general admission, there were no ticket tiers, no VIP tents, no glamping. If you’re a music fan, you get treated the same. But also people’s experiences were definitely different.
Were there any moonshot musical artists that you wanted to get but couldn’t?
I worked with Fred [Durst], trying to get him to be a part of this, and in the end, it just didn’t work out. I wish he would have had a chance because again, this isn’t to put blame on Limp Bizkit. I think the promoters blame Limp Bizkit for sure, but I don’t think the film does. I think their music represented the zeitgeist of the feeling the attendees had at the time. This is wild, considering we started the ’90s with the idealism of Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Tribe Called Quest, and end with the nihilism of nu-metal. I think that’s really interesting. It almost feels like two separate decades under one umbrella.
What gave you the idea of structuring the doc around these on-site press conferences, which grow increasingly hostile as the fest goes on between Scher and the MTV journalists?
Those were gold. As a documentary filmmaker I want you to live not in talking heads that are giving us an oral history, but the live moments of the fest. These had so much subtext to them that tell you so much more about the energy in there. There’s this regression of norms, and the organizers were definitely having a hard time seeing the issues and the way the fest was devolving. Like I said, John and Michael got caught up on their own mythology of Woodstock. “These things just work out in the end, right?” In this case, I don’t think it did.
Another element you use are the letters of David DeRosia, who tragically died at the fest; they’re reenacted by someone else’s voice. You do the same thing in Love, Antosha, where Anton Yelchin’s journals are read by Nicolas Cage, playing almost this adult version of Anton who never got to be. Amid debates on the ethics of representing people who have passed on as subjects in a documentary, how do you approach the challenge of making sure their voices are heard in a way that’s acceptable to them and their families?
In the case of both David here and Anton there, it’s a window into the brain of somebody reading the writings. I would never do it without the permission of their friends or loved ones. In this case, it’s one of his best friends reading David’s journals, someone he lost there. To me, it’s the same thing as a reenactment, which is so common in documentaries today. When archives start to dry up a bit, people have to start reinventing ways to make these people’s voices heard. At the same time, I get that people need to be there, especially in documentaries. It’s tough, because it’s still entertainment, and it’s still storytelling. And there are ways you have to keep the story going.
I get the debate on both sides. It’s a tricky thing. I think a lot of documentarians are skirting with certain techniques. I try to stay as true as possible; I don’t think I skirt those ethical lines. I think in the cases where I’ve used this device of having someone read someone else’s words, it has to be someone who’s emotionally close to the person whose words they’re reading. In the case of Anton, it was Nicolas, someone whom his parents basically tapped to read Anton’s words. This is who Anton would have wanted to read. In the case of David, this is one of his best friends that went through this tragedy with him. Finding the right way to tell these stories is complicated, but it’s an interesting topic and one that should come up more often, honestly.
Woodstock ’99: Peace, Love, and Rage premieres July 23rd on HBO.