My main takeaway from Trainwreck: Woodstock '99, a new three-part Netflix documentary series about the notoriously disastrous music festival, is that the vibes were f---ed. Just the absolute worst energy imaginable. The festival that came to symbolize the dark side of American society at the end of the 20th century didn't seem like any fun at all, unless your idea of fun is committing crimes with a mob of dehydrated, drug-addled frat boys.
Trainwreck: Woodstock '99 — which underwent an 11th-hour title change from Clusterf**k: Woodstock '99 — tells the harrowing inside story of how it all went wrong, giving an urgent you-are-there look at how a nihilistic culture doomed the event from the start and played out on the ground over the course of a violent weekend that culminated in a full-fledged riot.
If you watched last summer's HBO documentary film Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage, the material and themes in Trainwreck will be familiar. The documentaries share some archival footage and interview subjects. The biggest difference between the two is that Peace, Love, and Rage tells, while Trainwreck shows. Both documentaries arrive at the same conclusions — that greedy fecklessness on the part of the promoters met free-floating macho toxicity among many of the attendees and created a powder keg — but Peace, Love, and Rage is primarily a cultural analysis of Woodstock '99 and the context in which it happened (there's a digression about Napster, for example), while Trainwreck is a visceral documentation of what it was like to actually be there. It allows its archival footage and interviews with people who were there to speak for themselves a bit more, so that you feel how bad it was, rather than being told how and why it was bad it by a bunch of talking head journalists. Trainwreck is the better of the two documentaries, so if you didn't watch Peace, Love, and Rage or still have an appetite for Woodstock '99 content, it's worth your while.
Director Jamie Crawford paces Trainwreck like a war story. The interviewees describe the festival like they survived a battle. The documentary gets into the nitty-gritty of all the various tactical failures that led to a Lord of the Flies environment inside the festival, and does an excellent job of communicating what the energy was like during the performances. A sequence in Episode 2 on Limp Bizkit's infamous set is a highlight, capturing the mounting tension that came to a head when frontman Fred Durst encouraged the crowd to let their "negative energy" out during the song "Break Stuff" and then refused to take any responsibility for the melee that ensued. Much has already been said about Durst's role in Woodstock '99 and the culture at large during that time, but what struck me watching him in 2022 is the similarity between his behavior at Woodstock '99 and Donald Trump on Jan. 6. They had the same instinct to throw gasoline on the fire of an angry mob.
Of course, Durst made things worse, but he's not the person to blame for things going wrong at Woodstock '99. The documentary makes clear that the people ultimately responsible for the Woodstock debacle are promoters Michael Lang, who died three months after completing these interviews, in which he fails to reckon with his part in the fiasco, and the extraordinarily delusional John Scher, who blames everyone but himself for the things that happened, when he admits that anything went wrong at all.
Trainwreck can be hard to watch when it's describing the horrifying sexual assaults that happened during the festival. The accounts are deeply disturbing, and made all the more so by the accompanying footage of topless women being groped while crowd-surfing. Trainwreck, like Peace, Love, and Rage before it, makes the questionable choice to not blur out nudity. If I were a woman who took off my clothes at a music festival more than 20 years ago, I would be very unhappy if that footage of my face and body resurfaced in a documentary, especially if it showed me getting nonconsensually touched during a sequence condemning nonconsensual touching. Even if it's legal to use this footage, it's still kind of gross.
Aside from the bad vibes, what really stands out about Trainwreck: Woodstock '99 is that it could still happen today, because music festivals are having serious organizational problems in the aftermath of Covid-19. Ten people died during the Astroworld tragedy last year, and the toxic combination of promoter negligence, performer irresponsibility, and out-of-control audience behavior was even worse there. Nowadays, women being assaulted at music festivals mercifully isn't waved off as "boys will be boys" to the extent it was back then, but the people who put on these festivals still don't have their young attendees' best interests at heart.
Premieres: Wednesday, Aug. 3 on Netflix
Who's behind it: Director Jamie Crawford, producers Cassandra Thornton and Sasha Kosminski
For fans of: The '90s, cultural documentaries, Gavin Rossdale
How many episodes we watched: 3 out of 3