Trainwreck: Woodstock ‘99
Director: Jamie Crawford
Starring: Michael Lang, John Scher, Jonathan Davis, Jewel, Gavin Rossdale, Ananda Lewis, and Norman "Fatboy Slim" Cook
The only other time OUTSIDELEFT put any effort into covering Woodstock was in the form of a review for Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage, an HBO documentary Bill Simmons produced last year.
Simmons’ documentary took broad strokes at the festival’s massive failures and glibly surmised that Woodstock ‘99’s audience – “the young, white males” – were to blame for the event’s disastrous results. Simmons’ not-so-subtle injection of race in his thesis smacked of trying to juice a conservative angle for an exploitive nationalistic narrative.
The thesis of OUTSIDELEFT’s aforementioned review (that you can find here) states that the only thing Woodstock ‘99 destroyed was the androgynous pop star, the most interesting and unpredictable type of pop star of them all. As you see in Simmons’ documentary, the crass, macho, sexism of Woodstock ‘99 all but ensured we wouldn’t see another intelligent, arty waif along the lines of a Jarvis Cocker or Nick Cave fronting a rock band for decades. Woodstock ‘99 ensured that immature punk and rap-rock would claim its spot, front and center of the charts, for years to come.
The thesis of Trainwreck: Woodstock ‘99 frames the event differently. Early in the first of three episodes, it’s made very clear that greed is what ruined Woodstock ‘99. Michael Lang’s desperate need for cultural relevance and John Scher's incessant search for high profit margins ruined Woodstock ‘99 before it even began.
Although he was initially hoping to make a name for himself within the concert promotion industry, Lang (a 24-year-old who dressed the part of a hippy) says he dreamt up Woodstock as an anti-Vietnam war protest. Fair enough, the Vietnam War was one more example of the US government’s shady politics, but an event of Woodstock’s proposed proportions needed deep pockets. Lang organized a small music festival in Florida the year before and realized he was financially out of his depth so he found a partner.
That’s when John Scher entered Lang’s life. Scher was, and definitely still is, a slimy, but seasoned co-promoter who was in charge of the budgets, money, and the logistics. When Woodstock ‘99 investors pressed on higher profit margins, Scher would outsource the event’s food service, waste management, and security (and you know how efficient outsourcing cheap labor turns out).
Though Woodstock ‘69 left the promoters in financial ruin, everyone all but made up for their losses with perpetual profits from Woodstock the movie, soundtrack, and licensed merchandise. And lucky for Lang, time and his persistent revisionist style of marketing helped everyone romanticize the sloppy event almost immediately. The success of Woodstock ‘69 was an accident, but Lang was able to ride the wave of the pacholi-scented nostalgia it produced for decades.
That nostalgia allowed Lang to indulge himself again in another Woodstock for its 30th anniversary. Lang had been scouting locations for Woodstock’s 30th for years, but couldn’t figure out how to make it turn a profit. He produced a second Woodstock in 1994 for its 25th anniversary, but like the ‘69 festival, it lost millions. Still, Lang was intent on redeeming himself and Woodstock as a brand, and he would do or say anything to make ‘99 happen.
(Lang’s style of event production was to over promise everything to everyone and hope it all works out, which it rarely did. You observe this tactic throughout Trainwreck, even up until the very last minutes when his open-ended promise leaves everyone, crew included, to think that Prince might make a surprise, unannounced festival-capping appearance. Or was it Bob Dylan? The Stones? There were rumors that Guns & Roses were going to come out of retirement for the potentially-historic moment. Michael Jackson’s name was bandied about, too. Ultimately, Lang’s rumor was just a carrot he dangled to keep the haggard, unwashed masses around until the end.)
Eventually, Lang found Griffiss U.S. Air Force Base, a retired government-owned airport – five square miles of concrete slab. Griffiss had what ‘69 and ‘94 didn’t – built-in facilities. This meant Lang and Scher wouldn’t have to spend money on location infrastructure. Lang was excited about his prefabricated find.
Lang was also excited about his new angle. A few months before Woodstock ‘99 weekend, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 15 people at Columbine High School in Colorado. Immediately, Lang realized how he could market his upcoming festival: Woodstock ‘99 would be a protest against gun violence with an emphasis on school shootings, a novel phenomenon at the time.
(While Lang’s sentiments seemed noble, the only time an anti-gun comment would be mentoned that weekend was on Sunday night. He illegally distributed 100,000 candles to the audience during the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ performance of “Under the Bridge.” After the candlelight vigil, audience members who were previously holding the lit wicks with outstretched arms were now using them to burn the airbase to the ground.)
There’s been a flurry of Woodstock ‘99 coverage lately – podcasts, documentaries, heady think pieces – as the overeager media tries to unpack the current downfall of America, their papertrail always seems to lead back to Woodstock ‘99 and the entitled Millennials who destroyed it.
But Trainwreck: Woodstock ‘99 is different. This documentary digs past the surface and into the ugly machinations of what it always was, a business venture organized by a couple of old, opportunistic millionaires who identified the chance to bilk a bunch of kids for a lot of money, so they took it – several times. It helps that director Jamie Crawford had a lot of strong source material. The rare amatuer video footage and interviews with some of Lang’s inner takes Trainwreck from a predictable episode of VH-1’s Behind the Music into something surprisingly entertaining, but ultimately disheartening.
In the end, Trainwreck shifts the blame of the event’s failures from its audience to its producers. It also takes the heat off its artists, especially Fred Durst who had become the face of the disaster. As much as we all want to pin a portion of America's decay on Durst, it turns out he wasn’t responsible for Woodstock ‘99.
Alarcon co-founded outsideleft with lamontpaul (the Tony Wilson to his Rob Gretton) in 2004. His work for OL has attracted the attention of hundreds of thousands of readers, oh and probably the FBI, too.
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