IIn 2019, the wreck of the now notoriously failed Fyre festival was the subject of an entertaining Netflix documentary. But while Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened was an exercise in glee, the three-part series Trainwreck: Woodstock 99 (Netflix), which depicts the doomed revival of the 1969 Peace and Love Festival, is a much darker portrait of mob rule, exploitation and misogyny.
Trainwreck is a lively and often terrifying watch that effectively increases the tension and creates a sense of dread and impending disaster. Each episode follows a day of the festival, from an upbeat start on Friday to the apocalyptic scenes in the wee hours of Monday, using a ticking clock to count down to each new disaster. From the start, the organizers freely admit that their intention was to make as much money as possible. In 1994 there was another Woodstock revival, but the fences were breached and there was no profit. By the time the 1999 event was pulled together, an eight-mile fence had been erected around a disused air force base, many of the crucial infrastructure tasks had been cheaply outsourced, and independent food and drink vendors were allowed to charge as much as they wanted for water and sustenance. It was hot, there was little shade and 250,000 wetters were growing increasingly angry.
There were signs of a bad-tempered weekend from the start. The audience was – by many reports and judging from the plentiful footage of the time – macho and aggressive, a ‘brotherhood boy’ culture that dominated the event. A cardboard sign with the inscription “Show us your tits”, which someone took the time to read, is waved to the artists from the crowd. Sheryl Crow fends off sexist heckling with more patience than the audience deserves. Teenage girls speak of being groped and molested while crowd surfing. It is only in the closing minutes of the final episode that her most notorious and horrifying legacy – reports of multiple rapes, including in the mosh pit – is fully addressed, to the apparent distress of some of those who worked on the team and the frankly appalling defensiveness of others.
There are obviously villains here, although their shocking lack of self-confidence makes it questionable whether they would see themselves that way. There is a lot of blaming and blaming, from one organizer to another, from the organizers to the crowd, from the crowd to the organizers. Was it the fault of the nu metal acts stirring everyone up or the bookers not varying the tempo of the acts on stage? Was it the kids who interpreted those old ’60s notions of free love as a license to plunder, or was it the profit-hungry managers who didn’t provide even the most basic infrastructure that would have appeased 250,000 “high as balls” attendees be able? Was it the culture or the environment? Was it greed or naivety? One of the most meaningful slogans sprayed on the remaining barricades is: “Down with Profitstock”.
This is where Trainwreck, while largely exciting, reaches its limits. It does an impeccable job of laying out the story but doesn’t venture far below the surface. When Fatboy Slim’s set in the rave hangar ends in horrible circumstances and he, like many other acts, gets away as quickly as possible, you can feel the fear and the burgeoning panic. In the end it’s like a disaster movie. But there is certainly more to discover. The biggest questions are why it turned and why in such a peculiar and grotesque way. Why did a music festival meant to be a statement against gun violence collapse into such violence and misogyny after the Columbine school shooting? In the end, it doesn’t dare to go deep, but instead follows the adrenaline-pumping spectacle of the fires and riots.
I was a teenager when Woodstock 99 was happening and I read the music press for the first time. Reading about what had happened to women and girls at a music festival was a formative experience – one of the things I would love to do all over the world once I was old enough. One of the few light moments here comes from one of the festival’s participants, Heather, who was 14 at the time. At least that’s what she says now: “We no longer accept what happened … I’m glad that my daughters never have to see it and have to think that it’s just the way it is.”