Right this moment, a brand new documentary referred to as Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, And Rage premieres on HBO and HBO Max. It’s the story of the infamous 1999 music pageant that featured the period’s hottest hard-rock bands and led to riots, sexual assaults, and the everlasting sullying of essentially the most well-known pageant model within the historical past of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s additionally a story of two generations, the child boomers and Era X, detailing how the previous tried to impose their self-created nostalgic myths on the latter, with disastrous outcomes. In the end, the movie explores how the toxicity that existed in popular culture in 1999 helped to form the world we reside in immediately.
I would really like you to see this film for private and deeply biased causes. No. 1, I’m within the movie as a speaking head. No. 2, I’m additionally a consulting producer. I used to be introduced on the venture after I wrote and hosted an eight-part podcast sequence on Woodstock 99 in 2019 referred to as Break Stuff. The movie consists of a few of the similar interviewees as my podcast, in addition to occasional snippets of interviews that I performed. Director Garret Worth has additionally built-in archival footage from the pageant in a method that vividly recreates the horror film-like construction of Woodstock 99 – what begins as an excuse for a bunch of younger individuals to occasion on the weekend shortly devolves into unrelenting violence and terror.
When the film was introduced just a few weeks in the past, I tweeted about my hope that folks watch Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, And Rage as a double function with the summer season’s different massive music pageant documentary, Summer season Of Soul. I inserted the phrase “honest” as a result of I wished to make it clear that I wasn’t joking. I actually imagine that Woodstock 99, whereas an unlikely pairing with Questlove’s feel-good debut directorial debut, nonetheless syncs nicely with Summer season Of Soul as a type of “heaven and hell” dialogue on comparable themes.
I used to be initially drawn to Woodstock 99 as subject material as a result of from a story perspective, it appeared related on a number of ranges. In case you had been to merely recount all the loopy and disturbing issues that occurred that weekend in July of 1999 — within the curiosity of avoiding spoilers, I gained’t delve into it right here — you’d have a compelling story. However Woodstock 99 can be an occasion with a wealthy subtext. Speaking about it’s a method to discover the arc of ’90s music tradition from grunge and riot grrrl to nu-metal and boy bands. The yr 1999 alone is fascinating; simply three months earlier than Woodstock 99, you had the varsity capturing at Columbine, one of many worst tragedies of the period. You additionally had the rise of Napster that yr, which pointed to how the web was about to upend not solely the music enterprise, however media typically.
Some of the fascinating storylines for me was in regards to the generational tensions that Woodstock 99 signified. I famous early on in my podcast that whereas there was one Woodstock within the 1960s — the massive one, the one with Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Santana, and The Who — there have been really twice as many Woodstocks within the ’90s, with Woodstock 94 and Woodstock 99. As I dug in deeper, I got here to see the issues at Woodstock 99 as an extension of the mythology created by Michael Wadleigh’s iconic 1970 documentary, Woodstock.
It may well’t be overstated how a lot our collective reminiscences of Woodstock have been formed by the documentary, some of the technically spectacular and influential rock docs ever made. As a film, it’s a strong expertise, a cinema verité tour-de-force that makes the viewer really feel as if they’re there in the course of this world-changing live performance. As journalism, nevertheless, Woodstock obscures not less than as a lot because it reveals. Watching the movie, you get the impression that the on-the-fly planning that went into the pageant leads to some discomfort for attendees. However by and huge, it looks like a cool time. What you don’t study, nevertheless, is that there have been riots on the unique pageant. You additionally don’t hear in regards to the near-mass electrocution occasion that might have probably killed tens of hundreds of hippies had it not been narrowly averted. Or in regards to the man who died after being run over by a tractor in a close-by discipline.
At Woodstock 99, the poor planning by organizers — who put in the pageant at a navy base coated in asphalt throughout a weekend by which temperatures approached 90 levels — echoes the chaos that surrounded the unique pageant. Solely this time it had much more tragic penalties. In that sense, the Woodstock 99 documentary to me appears like a response to the primary Woodstock documentary, warning in opposition to what can occur when individuals take myth-making films from the previous at face worth.
Whereas Summer season Of Soul in virtually each different method is a a lot completely different movie than Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, And Rage, it’s additionally clear that Questlove has made his personal reply report to the unique Woodstock.
In interviews discussing his vibrant and illuminating movie in regards to the 1969 Harlem Cultural Competition, which befell over the course of six weeks throughout the identical summer season as Woodstock, Questlove revealed that the unique title for Summer season Of Soul was in truth Black Woodstock. However he got here to see that framing his movie that method was finally self-defeating; how do you make an argument for the singular significance of one thing whenever you relegate it to being the “Black” model of one thing else?
“I wished to stay away from ‘Woodstock’ received all of the credit score! ‘Woodstock’ received all of the credit score!” he informed the Chicago Tribune. “I didn’t wish to enter into the venture defensively.”
Whereas Summer season Of Soul can hardly be accused of being a “defensive” image, it does have an agenda past displaying the superb assortment of expertise on show. (And, when you haven’t seen it but, the expertise is really superb: Stevie Surprise, Sly And The Household Stone, Mavis Staples, Mahalia Jackson, The Chambers Brothers, Sonny Sharrock, The fifth Dimension, and extra.) For Questlove, the Harlem Cultural Competition signifies the methods by which tales about Black American tradition constantly take a backseat in historical past, or are ignored utterly.
From the soar, it’s reiterated that the wondrous footage this movie finds sat in a vault for a number of a long time as a result of the powers-that-be determined that the Harlem Cultural Competition wasn’t definitely worth the documentary remedy. (Precisely how lengthy this footage sat undiscovered has since turn out to be the topic of minor controversy.) In the meantime, Woodstock took on an outsized place in music historical past as a result of it was immortalized in a basic, larger-than-life movie. Certainly, as Summer season Of Soul argues persuasively, we’d have felt equally about this pageant had it additionally gotten its due as a movie 50 years in the past.
Correcting lapses in history-writing is an enormous job, and Questlove places in lots of work on Summer season Of Soul. It’s not merely one documentary a couple of pageant, however a sequence of mini-documentaries in regards to the artists on stage and the tradition they fostered. We study gospel music and salsa music and the sociopolitical historical past of Harlem and the racial politics that haunted one of many period’s prime Black pop teams, The fifth Dimension. Most of this info is delivered through up to date speaking head-style interviews with musicians and attendees. After which Questlove makes use of the footage from 1969 as a backbone on which to hold all of these tales, which retains the movie shifting ahead briskly and coherently.
This “corrective” facet of Summer season Of Soul — the best way it, once more, responds to Wadleigh’s Woodstock — is likely one of the movie’s strengths. It additionally creates essentially the most irritating facet of watching the film. Summer season Of Soul is magic every time we get to see and listen to grasp artists of their prime — Sly Stone and his band taking part in “On a regular basis Folks,” Gladys Knight and The Pips tearing via “I Heard It Via The Grapevine,” the gobsmacking duet between Jackson and Staples on “Take My Hand, Valuable Lord.” However simply whenever you’re about to transported to a different world … somebody begins speaking over the music. You ever get caught sitting subsequent to somebody at a live performance who gained’t cease yapping? Summer season Of Soul appears like that generally.
Whereas I valued a few of the interviews — Marilyn McCoo breaking down after seeing her youthful self is unforgettable — I discovered myself resenting the movie every time it took me away from that unimaginable footage. (Contemplate that within the circumstances of artists like Sharrock and The Chambers Brothers, you solely hear speaking after they’re on-screen. For the Blu-ray launch, I’m going to want an additional disc of simply unedited Sonny Sharrock guitar solos.)
As a lot as I like Summer season Of Soul total, a part of me needs it had been a bit extra like, nicely, the unique Woodstock, by which all of these killer performances would’ve unfolded, cinéma vérité type, with out commentary telling us What It All Means. Then once more, that form of live performance movie already exists, Questlove appears to say. Like Woodstock 99, Summer season Of Soul is about discovering a brand new method past one of many central pillars of boomer tradition.