HBO's "Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage" revisits the wreckage of a music festival revival in upstate New York, 22 years after hundreds of thousands gathered at a sweltering defunct Air Force base.
"I started walking through the crowd, and everybody was angry, and everybody was hot, and everyone was complaining, and it had only been open for six hours, and it was already off the rails," musician Moby says in the documentary premiering Friday (9 EDT/PDT).
The Grammy-nominated artist was part of the late-July weekend lineup playing Rome's Griffiss Air Force Base, close to 30 years after the original Woodstock took place in August 1969. Jewel, Scott Stapp of Creed, Korn lead singer Jonathan Davis, The Roots' Tariq Trotter and members of The Offspring are among the Woodstock 99 performers interviewed in the film, directed by Garret Price.
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Price's title hints at the angst and lack of civility among some of the attendees. There were sexual assaults and hospitalizations. Concertgoer David DeRosia died of a heat-related ailment at 24. Emergency medical technician Dave Konig says in the 110-minute documentary that the music festival stands out in his mind, even among natural disasters. "I worked Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Rita and Hurricane Sandy," he says, "but whenever people ask me about Woodstock 99, I always say that it was the greatest disaster I ever went to."
Water was sold for $4 a bottle. Portable toilets backed up and attendees rolled around in what they thought was mud, but also included human waste, according to the film. Journalist Rob Sheffield says "every flat surface there had been so thoroughly urinated on by Friday evening." Sunday, concertgoers ignited fires and began rioting. They looted merchandise vendors, ripped open an ATM and began destroying structures.
Price, 41, was a college student in 1999, and watched the festival on pay-per-view TV. "I remember sitting glued to my TV for three days with my roommates," he says in an interview. "It didn't seem as crazy back then."
"The festival – the way it unfolds – it's visceral, it's crazy, and that was almost the easy part of telling the story," he says. "It was really finding ways to pop in and out of this context that surrounded it."
The director reveals what surprised him while making the film, and what he hopes viewers take away. (Edited for length and clarity.)
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Question: How did you come to realize that the experience of some attendees was so different than what you witnessed on TV?
Garret Price: It wasn't 'til years later when I really started going down the YouTube rabbit hole and watching clips and reading some exposés about that weekend and some people's personal accounts, (that I began) understanding the issues that were happening, and not only (with) the festival, but in this cultural context in America. Columbine (mass shootings) happened just a couple of months before, the hysteria of Y2K, and then this is the "Girls Gone Wild" era in America. FHM and Maxim – if you were a working actress at the time, you had to be on the cover of one of these magazines half-naked just to get any attention.
Q: What do you want viewers to take away from the documentary?
Price: People, right now, are really into the 90s, so (in) that way, people are going to get pulled in a little bit with this story. And it'll be entertaining because it's an engaging story, but at the same time (they can) really self-reflect and reckon with the culture of the time.
Q: The movie really speaks to the influence of one's environment. One concertgoer says, "I never in a million years would've thought I'd have somehow got drawn into a riot. But man. It just happened."
Price: It really shows you the danger of mob mentality, but also how quickly humans could turn when they're not being taken care of. I went into this film with this question of "Was it a victim of its time?" But I think it's much more complex than that. I think there (were) issues all around with some negligence on the part of organizers, with the culture of the time and also just getting lost in in romanticizing the idea of Woodstock all together.
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Q: What influence, if any, do you feel bands like Limp Bizkit – singing "Break Stuff" and encouraging the crowd "Take all that negative energy and put it the (expletive) out" – and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (who played Jimi Hendrix's "Fire" as blazes burned amid the crowd) had on the acts of violence that occurred?
Price: It's hard, because I don't want to point fingers at the band. These bands are hired to put on a show. With Limp Bizkit, if you really look at '99, they were on this meteoric rise, (but) they were still a young band. Also, I think there's an inherent pressure to putting on a Woodstock performance. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with a crowd of that size. At the same time, I've talked to a lot of musicians, and they say there is a responsibility of artists up there. (But) Musicians have always been a scapegoat when anything goes wrong (and) I think issues are much deeper than that.
Q: Did anything surprise you while making the documentary?
Price: I found myself becoming empathetic towards the attendees. I don't want to say I agree with how they acted out (on the festival's final night), but I spoke to a concert promoter, a pretty big one. It was not in the film, but he said to me, "When you start treating your audience members as pigs, they're gonna act like it. This is Organizer 101." You really start to feel like when basic human needs aren't met, people start rebelling.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: HBO's 'Woodstock 99': Concert fiasco featured in new documentary