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by Clarence Ewing
What’s the point of a music festival? The answer depends on who you ask: To make money; To perform your art in front of crowds while also getting paid; To see bands, hang out with friends, enjoy the weather, and maybe have a transformative experience..
The festival that still stands out in history is the 1969 Woodstock Music and Arts Festival. It’s not just a touchstone in American music, but American culture. The electrifying performances and peaceful gathering of hundreds of thousands of fans remain an ideal image of what festivals can be.
Two new documentaries highlight two other major milestones in music festival lore, one of them lost to history until now, the other one something a lot of people would rather forget.
Woodstock ‘99: Peace, Love, and Rage documents hour by agonizing hour what happened during all three days of the notorious festival. Thorough examinations of the event have been few and far between, probably because it’s too painful to watch or recount.
Woodstock ‘99 was organized by the same people who put together the original 1969 event. After a relatively successful revival festival in 1994, they decided “What could go wrong?” with doing it again. Besides, expectations were a little different. The doc rightly points out how the original Woodstock, for all its iconic status, wasn’t exactly a paradise, operations-wise. If social media existed at the time, there might be a much different view of that event than the misty-eyed grooviness that exists today.
Still, artists who attended Woodstock ‘99 talk about the “vibes” and “energy” of the place being off from the moment they stepped onto the decommissioned military base that served as the festival’s grounds. They were right.
Basically, everything that could have gone wrong that weekend did, with each group of people involved in the event [the event producers, the artists, and the fans] making their own contribution to the disaster.
Even the factors beyond anyone’s control, like the weather, worked against them. Temperatures hovering above 90 degrees all weekend could not be helped. But $4 bottles of water, overflowing portable toilets, and apathetic security could have.
It also didn’t help that the prominent music of the time was “Nu-Metal” or “Rap-Rock.” [for those too young to remember: Take the misogyny, homophobia, and pointless violence of gangsta rap and merge it with the empty rebellion and unearned indignation of suburban punk.]
The king of that musical hill in the mid-’90s was Limp Bizkit, and their performance (along with others like Red Hot Chili Peppers) is cited as one of the reasons the crowd was whipped into a frenzy that led many of them to eventually tear apart and curn down the festival grounds.
The documentary also addresses the horrific treatment of women who attended the festival, through frank interviews and graphic footage. While only a handful of sexual assaults were reported to authorities at the time, the actual number of women who were assaulted or raped during the event is estimated to be in the hundreds.
The footage and interviews from this doc go a long way in setting the record straight about what actually happened during that fateful time, and how it reflected what was going on (and is still going on) in the culture.
Meanwhile, 30 years prior to Woodstock ‘99, another festival took place that, until literally a few weeks ago, got no widespread attention. The 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival was a free six-week concert series headlined by some of the all-time greats of American music, including Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight & the Pips, B.B. King, David Ruffin of the Temptations, The 5th Dimension, Sly and the Family Stone (who also performed at the original Woodstock), Mongo Santamaria, Mahalia Jackson, Max Roach, and Nina Simone.
The event producers state that they couldn’t find a distributor for the festival footage, so it was quietly stored away. But these weren’t unknown artists or musicians who were just staring out. Why this footage of all-time greats sat in a basement for 50 years boggles the mind. Thanks to the efforts of Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson, these performances can now be seen again.
The documentary also explores the social context around life in Harlem, a vibrant multicultural community finding its way through life in 20th century America. The moon landing happened at the same time as the festival; Reporters asked festival-goers about it, many of their replies were how it was hard to care about going into space when racism and poverty reamined harsh realities in peoples’ lives. [An opinion that persists today in response to the recent billionaire road-trips to the upper atmosphere.]
When the festival ended, no major legislation was passed because of it, no generations-long social movement grew out of it. But for the performers and attendees, it was a fantastic opportunity to come together and celebrate music.
In the 2020s, the music festival has solidified as its own kind of cottage industry. Modern festivals have made a science of putting on their events, with free water on scorching days, different access (and comfort) levels for different ticket prices, and tightly integrated corporate sponsorships.
As events like Riot Fest have proven for many years, it is possible to have a festival that features loud, heavy music that is also safe and inclusive. It’s unlikely something like a
Woodstock ‘99 will happen again. Unfortunately, thanks to the ever-present profit motive, the same could be said about the Harlem Cultural Festival.
Still, it’s important to remember the past. Both of these docs do a great job of correcting the historical record. They also show how the power of music can be used for good or ill.
Summer of Soul is available on Hulu. Woodstock ‘99: 3 Days of Peace, Love, and Rage is available on HBO.
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