Indie

HBO’s ‘Woodstock 99’ Doc Is The Dark Flipside Of ‘Summer Of Soul’

Today, a new documentary called Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, And Rage premieres on HBO and HBO Max. It’s the story of the notorious 1999 music festival that featured the era’s most popular hard-rock bands and ended in riots, sexual assaults, and the permanent sullying of the most famous festival brand in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s also a tale of two generations, the baby boomers and Generation X, detailing how the former tried to impose their self-created nostalgic myths on the latter, with disastrous results. Ultimately, the film explores how the toxicity that existed in pop culture in 1999 helped to shape the world we live in today.

I would like you to see this movie for personal and deeply biased reasons. No. 1, I’m in the film as a talking head. No. 2, I’m also a consulting producer. I was brought on the project after I wrote and hosted an eight-part podcast series on Woodstock 99 in 2019 called Break Stuff. The film includes some of the same interviewees as my podcast, as well as occasional snippets of interviews that I conducted. Director Garret Price has also integrated archival footage from the festival in a way that vividly recreates the horror film-like structure of Woodstock 99 – what begins as an excuse for a bunch of young people to party on the weekend quickly devolves into unrelenting violence and terror.

When the movie was announced a few weeks ago, I tweeted about my hope that people watch Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, And Rage as a double feature with the summer’s other big music festival documentary, Summer Of Soul. I inserted the word “sincere” because I wanted to make it clear that I wasn’t joking. I honestly believe that Woodstock 99, while an unlikely pairing with Questlove’s feel-good debut directorial debut, nevertheless syncs well with Summer Of Soul as a kind of “heaven and hell” dialogue on similar themes.

I was initially drawn to Woodstock 99 as subject matter because from a narrative perspective, it seemed relevant on multiple levels. If you were to merely recount all of the crazy and disturbing things that happened that weekend in July of 1999 — in the interest of avoiding spoilers, I won’t delve into it here — you would have a compelling story. But Woodstock 99 is also an event with a rich subtext. Talking about it is a way to explore the arc of ’90s music culture from grunge and riot grrrl to nu-metal and boy bands. The year 1999 alone is fascinating; just three months before Woodstock 99, you had the school shooting at Columbine, one of the worst tragedies of the era. You also had the rise of Napster that year, which pointed to how the internet was about to upend not only the music business, but media in general.

One of the most interesting storylines for me was about the generational tensions that Woodstock 99 signified. I noted early on in my podcast that while there was one Woodstock in the 1960s — the big one, the one with Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Santana, and The Who — there were actually twice as many Woodstocks in the ’90s, with Woodstock 94 and Woodstock 99. As I dug in deeper, I came to see the problems at Woodstock 99 as an extension of the mythology created by Michael Wadleigh’s iconic 1970 documentary, Woodstock.

It can’t be overstated how much our collective memories of Woodstock have been shaped by the documentary, one of the most technically impressive and influential rock docs ever made. As a movie, it’s a powerful experience, a cinema verité tour-de-force that makes the viewer feel as though they are there in the middle of this world-changing concert. As journalism, however, Woodstock obscures at least as much as it reveals. Watching the film, you get the impression that the on-the-fly planning that went into the festival results in some discomfort for attendees. But by and large, it seems like a groovy time. What you don’t learn, however, is that there were riots at the original festival. You also don’t hear about the near-mass electrocution event that could have potentially killed tens of thousands of hippies had it not been narrowly averted. Or about the man who died after being run over by a tractor in a nearby field.

At Woodstock 99, the poor planning by organizers — who installed the festival at a military base covered in asphalt during a weekend in which temperatures approached 90 degrees — echoes the chaos that surrounded the original festival. Only this time it had even more tragic consequences. In that sense, the Woodstock 99 documentary to me feels like a response to the first Woodstock documentary, warning against what can happen when people take myth-making movies from the past at face value.

While Summer Of Soul in practically every other way is a much different film than Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, And Rage, it’s also clear that Questlove has made his own answer record to the original Woodstock.

In interviews discussing his vibrant and illuminating film about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which took place over the course of six weeks during the same summer as Woodstock, Questlove revealed that the original title for Summer Of Soul was in fact Black Woodstock. But he came to see that framing his film that way was ultimately self-defeating; how do you make an argument for the singular importance of something when you relegate it to being the “Black” version of something else?

“I wanted to keep away from ‘Woodstock’ got all the credit! ‘Woodstock’ got all the credit!” he told the Chicago Tribune. “I didn’t want to enter into the project defensively.”

While Summer Of Soul can hardly be accused of being a “defensive” picture, it does have an agenda beyond showing the amazing collection of talent on display. (And, if you haven’t seen it yet, the talent is truly amazing: Stevie Wonder, Sly And The Family Stone, Mavis Staples, Mahalia Jackson, The Chambers Brothers, Sonny Sharrock, The 5th Dimension, and more.) For Questlove, the Harlem Cultural Festival signifies the ways in which stories about Black American culture consistently take a backseat in history, or are ignored completely.

From the jump, it is reiterated that the wondrous footage this film unearths sat in a vault for several decades because the powers-that-be decided that the Harlem Cultural Festival wasn’t worth the documentary treatment. (Exactly how long this footage sat undiscovered has since become the subject of minor controversy.) Meanwhile, Woodstock took on an outsized place in music history because it was immortalized in a classic, larger-than-life film. Surely, as Summer Of Soul argues persuasively, we would have felt similarly about this festival had it also gotten its due as a film 50 years ago.

Correcting lapses in history-writing is a big job, and Questlove puts in a lot of work on Summer Of Soul. It’s not merely one documentary about a festival, but a series of mini-documentaries about the artists on stage and the culture they fostered. We learn about gospel music and salsa music and the sociopolitical history of Harlem and the racial politics that haunted one of the era’s top Black pop groups, The 5th Dimension. Most of this information is delivered via contemporary talking head-style interviews with musicians and attendees. And then Questlove uses the footage from 1969 as a spine on which to hang all of those stories, which keeps the film moving forward briskly and coherently.

This “corrective” aspect of Summer Of Soul — the way it, again, responds to Wadleigh’s Woodstock — is one of the film’s strengths. It also creates the most frustrating aspect of watching the movie. Summer Of Soul is magic whenever we get to see and hear master artists in their prime — Sly Stone and his band playing “Everyday People,” Gladys Knight and The Pips tearing through “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” the gobsmacking duet between Jackson and Staples on “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” But just when you’re about to transported to another world … someone starts talking over the music. You ever get stuck sitting next to someone at a concert who won’t stop yapping? Summer Of Soul feels like that sometimes.

While I valued some of the interviews — Marilyn McCoo breaking down after seeing her younger self is unforgettable — I found myself resenting the film whenever it took me away from that incredible footage. (Consider that in the cases of artists like Sharrock and The Chambers Brothers, you only hear talking when they’re on-screen. For the Blu-ray release, I’m going to need an extra disc of just unedited Sonny Sharrock guitar solos.)

As much as I like Summer Of Soul overall, part of me wishes it were a bit more like, well, the original Woodstock, in which all of those killer performances would’ve unfolded, cinéma vérité style, without commentary telling us What It All Means. Then again, that sort of concert film already exists, Questlove seems to say. Like Woodstock 99, Summer Of Soul is about finding a new way beyond one of the central pillars of boomer culture.

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