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a documentary chronicles the chaos of the Woodstock 99 festival

Instead of being celebrated for a weekend before the turn of the millennium, the hippie dream was shattered, beaten, set on fire and left for dead during a four-day long weekend between July 22 and 25, 1999. “Anthology Chaos: Woodstock 99”, broadcast in three parts on Netflix, tells in detail the story of this celebration of the spirit of Woodstock, the great festival of “peace and music” whose mythical edition took place in 1969.

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Except that the story goes wrong : the combination of sweltering heat with alcohol, drugs, stupidity tinged with a dose of toxic masculinity from part of the public and the lack of anticipation of the organization motivated by greed, has caused situations of chaos, fights, destruction of facilities, fires, assaults and rapes. Festival-goers, artists, journalists and relief workers testify. As for the organizers, 23 years later, they are still reluctant to assume their share of responsibility.

“Peace, love, music, that’s all”

The images shot at the festival site in Rome, New York, on July 26, the Monday following the four days of concerts are striking: heavy gray skies, mist – unless it’s remnants of stagnant smoke, not a human in sight, police cars, trash strewn on the ground, twisted metal barriers, trucks smoking after burning for part of the night…”Are we in Bosnia?“, wonders the journalist David Blaustein who worked at the time for the television channel ABC News and who films this landscape of desolation, far from what the name Woodstock can send back in the collective imagination, this symbol of the dream hippie and counterculture.

Five years earlier, however, the second edition of the festival, organized for the 25th anniversary of “Woodstock 1969” went well, despite the lack of profits, the downpours of rain and the festival-goers covered in boiling water. This earned the 1994 edition the nickname “Mudstock” (“mud” for mud in English). Michael Lang, the main promoter of the first festival in 1969 is there every time. The motivation of this idealistic guardian of the temple of hippie memory: to transmit to a youth of the 90s marked by the violence of firearms the values ​​of peace and fraternity. “No violence. Peace, love, music, that’s all“, he explains in the documentary, shot before his death in January 2022.

Photo of a couple taken on the first day of Woodstock 99, Thursday, before the chaos
Photo of a couple taken on the first day of Woodstock 99, Thursday, before the chaos

©Getty
-John Atashian

But the America of the late 1960s, steeped in the Vietnam War, is not the America of the late 1990s, marked a few months before Woodstock 99 by the Columbine High School shooting, killing 13 people and injuring around 30 people. Violence is much more present in society, in culture and in the news. It is therefore impossible to hope to reproduce (better) this mythical festival. Yet it is this crazy ambition that is pursued by organizers and festival-goers alike.

The recklessness of the direction of the festival

The sequence of this most famous Woodstock 99 is not evacuated: that of the riot on Saturday during the concert of the leading group of nu-metal at the time, Limp Bizkit. The timing of the band playing the track “Break Stuff” is often seen as the tipping point that led to chaos. Singer Fred Durst, as well as “his ego and his superego” as the journalist David Blaustein analyzes it, realizes that it has the possibility of unleashing a crowd already out of control.

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He addresses the audience:Go look deep within yourself, take all the negative energy and let it out of you. (…) When this song starts, I want you to drop everything.“The human tide in front of him runs. Not far from there, the wounded flock to the emergency services. During the concert, plywood boards which serve as palisades are detached and quickly serve for some, including the singer, to surf crowd. Fred Durst is far from realizing what it entails. An ignorance, voluntary or not, which is still reproached to him today, in particular by the organizers. But the documentary helps put things in perspective. In reality, Limp Bizkit was just one of many sparks.

The episode of the candles during the Red Hot Chili Peppers concert on Sunday evening, for example, is quite revealing of the recklessness of the festival management. How can you think for a second that distributing 100,000 candles, at a overexcited crowd, drunk, drugged, exhausted, without notifying the firefighters, does not lead to disaster? Fires start everywhere on the site during and after the concert, then riots, attacks on shops and vending machines. Only the intervention of the National Guard allows the end of hostilities and the departure of the last festival-goers. “Giving fire to an audience that was treated like animals for three days was not very smart“, testifies a member of the team.

Beginning of the Sunday night destruction sequence after the last concert.
Beginning of the Sunday night destruction sequence after the last concert.

©Getty
-Andrew Lichtenstein

Concerts and health crisis

Festival-goers considered as animals, who therefore behave like animals. For Woodstock 99, 250,000 tickets are sold, and more or less 100,000 people enter with counterfeit tickets, according to estimates. The prospect of great profits for engine, the team of promoters who accompanies Michael Lang sees big and ambitious. The planned site is located on a disused army base with hangars and airstrip, all surrounded by a wall of wooden palisades. The musical lineup is a huge catch-all to attract as many people as possible, the biggest groups and artists of the moment are programmed, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Korn, Limp Bizkit, Fatboy Slim, Jamiroquai, Sheryl Crow, Rage Against The Machine , Alanis Morissette, DMX, The Roots, Ice Cube, but also some legends, like James Brown, George Clinton, Willie Nelson, Elvis Costello.

From the second day, Friday, the small hands of the production team begin to feel the trouble coming for lack of having put the financial means to do things correctly: the bins are not enough in number are full, waste is thrown everywhere , the toilets are unusable. The situation is such that on Sunday, the control of the water distributed in the fountains reveals that it is no longer drinkable. Festival-goers fall ill, have allergic reactions. From a health point of view, the festival has already failed.

A cocktail of heat, frustration and drugs

At the entrance to the site, instructions had been given to seize food and drinks, which was not necessarily the smartest directive given the forecast weather (more than 35 degrees) and the circulation of drugs which escaped the checks. On site, nothing is free. Everything is exorbitantly priced but that does not prevent the alcohol from flowing freely. Woodstock 99 is sponsored by the beer brand Budweiser, the hippie spirit will come back. The most unbridled capitalism is at home on the festival: the prices of drinks and food increase arbitrarily, as the days pass and stocks decrease.

The only elements comparable with Woodstock 1969? Naked and half-naked people all over the place. And drugs, a lot. In the evening, when the last concert ends before midnight, a hangar welcomes tens of thousands of revelers still motivated for a rave. The many witnesses quoted in the documentary evoke incredible quantities of drugs, to the point of having a situation as critical for the consumers, who are unwell, as for the DJ, the overwhelmed teams on the site and the battered infrastructure.

Festival-goers with a sign on which is written
Festival-goers with a sign on which is written “Inspector of breasts”.

©Getty
-Andrew Lichtenstein

A cocktail sufficient to arouse low-brow but harmless comments in some, unhealthy machismo of American university siblings in others, as we see in the film American Pie at the time, but also, alas, sometimes worse. A “human zoo“with behaviors”wild“encouraged by the presence of the MTV cameras. Women and adolescent girls are the first victimswith inappropriate comments in the best of cases, but also unwanted touching and rape.

The denial of the organizers

From the start of the festival, the disgruntled did not hide their disappointment and anger. They paid very expensive entrance to party in good conditions and feel cheated. Some express it by telling reporters, others angrily throw stones, plastic bottles at MTV teams or on stage. A spectator at the time perfectly sums up the frustration and reaction of some of the festival-goers: “In today’s world, we would destroy this festival with TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram, but it didn’t exist back then. The kids could only blame the staff and the site.

Not to mention that a crowd of 200,000 people dancing and jumping, in the heat, without shadow, can only put security guards and rescuers in difficulty. Moreover, there is no question of having real security agents or anyone close to what looks like authority, justifies Michael Lang:peace patrols“, untrained, unarmed and some members as young and party-goers as the festival-goers.

The
The “peace patrollers” in front of the main stage of the festival.

©Getty
-John Atashian

23 years later, the documentary is revealing of the attitude of denial of the organizers, who still do not feel in any way responsible for having created situations putting women in danger and, more generally, allowing chaos. They don’t talk about a general brothelbut of a few spoilsports which do not “didn’t want the party to end“, of marginals “who didn’t want to grow up” came to spoil the event. More than two decades after the events, “Anthology Chaos: Woodstock 99” leaves you speechless.

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