The Pitch: The world of documentary film seems to believe in one thing: Why have just one documentary covering a disastrous music festival when you can have two? Unlike the paired Netflix and Hulu documentaries which investigated the wildness of Fyre Fest, though, Netflix’s new docuseries Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99 at least has a good year or so of distance from HBO’s Woodstock ’99, while rehashing much of the same material.
It’s Not a Three-Hour Movie: Trainwreck (previously known as Clusterfuck, and streaming today on Netflix), does have a distinct advantage over the HBO doc — rather than compressing the full breadth of the three-day disaster into one 110-minute film, the series consists of three episodes, structured to mirror the three days of the actual festival.
While the episodic structure does help provide some focus, throughout Episodes 1 and 2 constant countdowns are present to remind us that as scary as things might seem so far, they’re only about to get worse. Given that the opening sequence of Episode 1 features real footage of the festival grounds on the Monday morning after the event, it’s perhaps an unnecessary reminder: “Is this fucking Bosnia?” someone says as the camera surveys the wreckage.
If it’s been a while, the 1999 attempt to revive Woodstock as a music and arts festival featured a much less peace-and-love-friendly line-up than the original iconic festival, including Limp Biskit, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Kid Rock.
For a multitude of reasons, from incredibly poor event planning that led to contaminated drinking water on sight and 18-year-olds being hired to work security, to what can happen when a young, adrenaline-fueled crowd drinks, does drugs, and rocks out hard for three days straight, Woodstock ’99 descended into a full-scale violent riot. The aftermath included 44 arrests, eight reported instances of sexual assault (including four rapes), and overall a dark moment for festival culture as we know it.
While the runtime of Trainwreck is longer than HBO’s take, the number of artists spoken to is somehow smaller, though Jewel, Gavin Rossdale, and Fatboy Slim are featured prominently, talking openly about the vibes of the experience and why, for example, Jewel left the stage deeply disturbed by playing for a crowd actively calling for a glimpse of her breasts. While some of the voices are similar to the HBO doc, MTV’s Ananda Lewis makes a big impression with her talking head segments, delivering some of Trainwreck‘s most pithy commentary.
Break Stuff: There’s an effort made here to understand why things might have gotten this out-of-hand, with some delicate finger-pointing in the direction of Fred Durst fueling the crowd’s rage on Saturday night. Journalist David Blaustein also points to the 1999 releases of American Pie and Fight Club as “brimming with sexuality from a male perspective” and “a good snapshot of where the psychology might have been for a lot of he kids who attended Woodstock ’99.” (Fight Club hadn’t actually come out yet in theaters when Woodstock ’99 happened, but Blaustein isn’t necessarily suggesting that the rioting was directly inspired by the David Fincher film.)
The footage of rioters tearing down structures remains as powerful today as it was at the time — like watching a MCU battle scene except the incidental property damage isn’t CGI, it’s real. But more horrifying is what the cameras didn’t capture: Central to Episode 2 is a sequence in which Fatboy Slim (nee Norman Smith) recalls seeing an actual van in the crowd during his set, which stage manager A.J. Srybnik was sent to investigate — as Srybnik recounts, inside the van he found a young girl, “shirt pulled up over her breasts, pants down around her ankles,” with a guy who was putting his shorts back on. The girl was taken away in an ambulance.
When Smith gets told during his interview about the alleged sexual assault that was literally happening in front of him, he seems truly staggered by the news. “It’s hideous to think in the midst of all those people having fun and me wanting to make everybody love each other, that was going on under our noses,” he says.
The issue of sexual assault is otherwise handled as almost an afterthought, towards the end of Episode 3. Woodstock original organizer Michael Lang even says that he didn’t hear about any reports of sexual assault until after the festival was over. “You can’t vet the people who buy your tickets — you just can’t,” he bemoans at one point.
In discussing the reported assaults, Lewis is blunt about her reaction, “Given the climate of the guys there, I’m not surprised by it.” But it’s followed by an attempt to claim that in a post-#MeToo world, things are different, better, with Lewis saying that “It’s like we’ve learned who we don’t want to be.” A beautiful idea, if maybe hard to believe that things have really changed all that much.
The Verdict: The story of Fyre Fest was engrossing enough to fuel two documentaries in part due to the extreme amounts of schadenfreude involved — the “victims” were easy-to-mock millennial influencers, the main “villain,” Billy McFarland, was arrested for various crimes, and most importantly no one got seriously injured. Woodstock ’99, though, was more than a trainwreck; for many people who went, it was legitimately traumatic.
Trainwreck thus has the good taste to save its moments of schadenfreude for the festival organizers: When talking-head interview subjects ask, “How could this have happened?” the filmmakers immediately follow it up with a “One Year Earlier…” flashback which answers the question.
It’s a bleak look at humanity, but the bulk of its bleakness is focused not on the attendees but the behind-the-scenes issues which exacerbated the situation. Perhaps its most wild revelation: A few of the fest attendees interviewed about their time at Woodstock ’99 speak fondly about the experience, with “Heather” in particular saying that while it was a scary experience, she was glad to have it.
Not everyone shares this perspective, like the attendee who talks about waking up with “trench mouth” on Day 3. But as a relatively even-handed look back at the issues which created such a Trainwreck, the insight offered by this series helps create a fuller picture of just what went wrong — and more importantly, how it might be avoided in the future.
Where to Watch: Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99 is streaming now on Netflix.