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19 August 2022

Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99 overlooks the festival’s most disturbing problem – sexual assault

This Netflix documentary treats violence against women as an afterthought and mythologises a toxic environment.

By Sophia Schmidt

In 1969 more than 450,000 people assembled in a small town in upstate New York for three days of peace, music and sex. Hippies with flower garlands in their hair, holding joints and chanting “make love not war” were the pioneers of the free love movement, which championed pleasure for the sake of pleasure, and fiercely opposed state interference. A famous photo shows a dark-haired, topless young woman, sitting on someone’s shoulders and enjoying the music with closed eyes and a joint in hand. It encapsulates the feeling of freedom and the bygone idealism of a generation. The acts included groundbreaking musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Santana. While there were reports of drug overdoses and at least three deaths, we remember the 1969 Woodstock Music & Art Fair for promoting the ideal of free expression, love and liberation.

The festival became a cultural touchstone, so it’s no surprise that in the decades afterwards a succession of anniversary concerts were organised in an attempt to recreate its heady atmosphere. “Peace and love and music” is what Michael Lang, the music producer who co-created Woodstock 1969 when he was 24, wanted when he decided to relaunch Woodstock in 1999. Lang, who died in January this year, was also certain that this time it “absolutely had to make a profit”, as he explains in the new Netflix documentary Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99, which narrates the events of the now-infamous festival.

Each of the documentary’s three episodes is dedicated to a different day of the festival, which ran from July 22 to 25 in Rome, New York. Over the first two days some troubling incidents took place, including male fans shouting “show your tits” at Rosie Perez as she introduced DMX. On the final day the environment became unmanageable. Bottled water was being sold for $12 due to price gauging, food became unaffordable, shower and drinking water was contaminated with human waste and the security lost control. Excessive drug and alcohol use contributed to the escalation. Inhumane conditions played out against a soundtrack of rage-filled Nineties rock. After Limp Bizkit’s set, which included the song “Break Stuff”, violence broke lose. Festival-goers lit fires, broke the ATMs, and overthrew sound towers. The documentary, clearly trying to build on the success of two films about 2017’s comically disastrous, profit-chasing Fyre Festival, delights in this pandemonium and focuses on the corporate greed that contributed to the event spiralling out of control. Netflix sells the documentary as a “behind the scenes” look at “an epic trainwreck… three days of utter chaos”. Tom Pearson, executive producer, described the series as “a universal story of nostalgia, hubris, greed and generational schism”, flippantly summing up the festival “a total clusterfuck”.

This gleeful tone obscures the more traumatic events that occurred at the festival. Just four days after Woodstock ‘99, the Washington Post revealed that New York State police were investigating reports of four rapes on site. In the years since, even more reports of sexual violence on site have emerged; the documentary suggests there were eight reported incidents of sexual assault, and many more female attendees have described the festival’s misogynistic, sexually aggressive environment. Several people interviewed for the documentary remember that crowd-surfing women were groped; security staff tell stories of unconscious women who were assaulted. So why does the documentary spend barely more than five minutes on the reports of sexual violence?

[See also: Which city could host the Eurovision 2023 song contest?]

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Jamie Crawford, the director, includes many voyeuristic archive shots of topless women surrounded by roaring frat boys. These jar with disturbing anecdotes of how women were treated at the festival, such as when AJ Srybnik, a stage manager, describes seeing a teenage girl, passed out, with her trousers at her ankles next to a young man who was doing up his fly. Over 20 years later it is clear how much the incident disturbed him – seeing it, he says, “took the life out of me”. Just as distressing is the footage of groping, catcalling and toxic behaviour. Sheryl Crow’s set is accompanied by men shouting “show me your tits” and “nice rack”. Heather, an attendee and contributor to the documentary, says that she when she crowd-surfed strangers grabbed at her breasts. She was 14 at the time, and had “never had those kinds of hands… in those places”. Her description is accompanied by images of crowd-surfing women trying to cover their breasts with their hands while men in the crowd yank at their T-shirts: it feels gratuitous and exploitative to see these images, no matter how briefly.

The documentary includes at least some commonsense remarks about female equality and safety. Jonathan Davis, lead vocalist of the nu-metal band Korn, says that “girls should be able to fucking have fun, just like a guy”. Elsewhere, women are blamed for the violence committed against them. John Scher, the promoter of the festival, says that he had “heard some reports that the women were pushed around, but there were a lot of women who voluntarily had their tops off… I’m not sure that I could have done anything.” In the 2021 HBO documentary Woodstock 99: Peace, Love and Rage, Scher said: “I am critical of the hundreds of women that were walking around with no clothes on, and expecting not to be touched… Women that were running around naked, you know, are at least partially to blame for that.”

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Netflix treats sexual violence as an afterthought to the revolution, rage and capitalist greed of Woodstock ’99. While Trainwreck: Woodstock ‘99 does express distress at the fate of the assaulted women, it does not bother to analyse the misogynistic attitudes of Nineties music culture that led to this toxic, violent environment. In doing so, it dismisses the festival’s victims – just as they were dismissed at the time.

[See also: Stefan Golaszewski’s Marriage is a stone-cold masterpiece]

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