‘Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99’ Explained: What Happened At The 1999 Woodstock Festival That Ended It Forever?


The documentary miniseries “Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99” is a compelling deep-dive into the highly anticipated Woodstock music festival at the turn of the century that quickly turned into a disastrous mess. Taking accounts of the organizers, musicians who performed, media personnel working at the event, and normal people who attended, Netflix brings together every aspect of the failure and successfully raises questions as to who was to blame for it. The documentary itself is craftily made, and its three episodes present a crisp narrative, using footage captured at the time.

What Is The Documentary Series’ Trainwreck: Woodstock’ 99′ About?

During the summer of 1969, many of America’s youth and believers in the counterculture of the time came together to celebrate “3 days of peace and music” at a dairy farm close to the town of Woodstock in New York. This music festival, held mostly against America’s ongoing war (invasion, really) in Vietnam, among other issues, did not only succeed in being a hugely successful music fest but quickly became an iconic event in cultural history. The Woodstock Festival became an example of how thousands of people came together to enjoy themselves in an environment of peace and brotherhood. There had been a number of attempts later on to try and recreate this phenomenal festival, and one of the original co-founders, and the most prominent name behind Woodstock, producer Michael Lang himself, tried doing so a couple of times. Together with successful promoter John Scher and his team at Metropolitan Entertainment, Lang tried to revive the Woodstock Festival in 1994, but it did not meet their financial expectations at all. With a fairly good set of musicians lined up, pouring rain over the two days and the fences around the place having come down meant that attendance was comparatively low, and most of the people who attended actually did so by getting in through the fallen fences instead of buying the tickets. Despite this huge monetary loss, Lang decided to hold the festival again in 1999, because he felt that the younger generation, particularly that of his kids, would enjoy what he and his generation had once enjoyed. A raging issue of gun violence, as a nearby high school in Columbine had recently had a horrible mass-shooting incident, also created an apt atmosphere for people to come together and revive flower power, as Lang claims. He and Scher got access to the decommissioned Griffiss Air Force base that had housing facilities, roads, security, and medical facilities already built inside, things that the organizers had to spend a lot of money building in ’94, and decided to make it the venue for the next iteration of the event. The local mayor easily agreed, knowing of the attention and harmony that the event would bring to his town of Rome in New York. The biggest musicians at the time were booked to perform, including Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sheryl Krow, Korn, and Limp Bizkit, and MTV bought TV rights to cover the festival extensively. It seemed that the festival would be a tremendous success and would definitely revive the iconic event, until things started to turn really wrong, and the event was even reported as “the day the music died.”

What Were The Problems That Occurred During The Three Days Of The Festival?

The general atmosphere of the place was as hyped as ever, with almost a similar number of people attending as the original Woodstock. But the first major negative was around the fact that the organizers, especially Scher, as he himself claims, intended to make huge profits from the event. Particularly owing to the losses they made in ’94, they now wanted to turn the event into a profitable extravaganza, starting with the food and beverage stalls that had been put up by external businesses in exchange for an amount paid to the organizers. Every attendee was made to go through a rigorous bag-check process in which any and all food and drinks found with them were not allowed inside, including water as well. Attendees instead had to buy everything from the vendors inside the event’s premises, and these vendors charged exorbitant prices for their products, with a bottle of water being sold for $4. Despite having free water fountains installed, they were very few in number as compared to the number of people present, and an average of twenty to thirty minutes had to be spent in line to get access to this free water. In a more horrible turn, this free water was found to be heavily contaminated and had given a number of people an infection called trench mouth due to drinking the unsanitary water.

A similar horrible situation presented itself in regards to toilets as well, as the portable toilets installed were very few in number and were also not maintained at all and had started overflowing and stinking from the morning of day two itself. Garbage disposal cans were similarly very few in number and placed very far from each other, and the entire area was dispersed with trash within a single day. No workers showed up to clean this garbage either, with waste only increasing over time, and some efforts to clean up were made by a few of the attendees themselves. Such was the situation that, at one point, people started throwing their used plastic bottles at the performers and members of the organizing team on the stage. The place, overall, had very little shade, and this, mixed with soaring hot temperatures on all three days, meant that people desperately tried to find any shade and then started to fall sick from heat exhaustion and dehydration.

Certain small acts of vandalism had started to take place from day one, as some of the attendees wrecked the place and even broke off the pipes at the free water fountain, which led to terrible mud and slush. The organizers had heavily skimped off in matters of security as well, and this clearly showed. Lang says that he did not want any representatives of the authorities or any armed personnel to be present, as that would go against the spirit of the festival, and so they had appointed a group of young men and women to be part of what they called “Peace Patrol.” These individuals were essentially given a chance to attend the event from the inside and take care of maintaining order in exchange for an amount of money.

Along with the absence of any sort of arms, these security officials hardly had any accountability on them either, and quickly they themselves indulged in drugs and sex. Not that drugs and sex were a problem in itself at Woodstock, but troublemakers started making use of this relatively free environment to carry out abominable acts. Innumerable women reported being groped and physically harassed by men in many instances over the three days. Five women reported being sexually violated during the event, and countless other sexual harassment reports were filed. One of the stage managers also describes how he found a minor girl in a similar state inside a van that was hijacked and driven into one of the performance camps. By the time all this was happening, the peace patrol workers were themselves heavily involved in unlawful acts, as one of them shares how he sold his security official t-shirt for $400 after lying that the t-shirt gave one access to the backstage. Some of the female performers also were heckled and harassed, even when they were onstage, and there was no security to keep the people in check.

What had initially begun as a few irregular acts of vandalism was spurred on by the overall terrible experience that the attendees were having, owing to the horrible mismanagement on the part of the organizers. This was even more egged on by the anti-authoritarian and somewhat anarchist tones of some of the bands that performed, and especially the performances of the nu metal bands. Uncontrollable acts of vandalism and assault/harassment were already noticed on the first day during the performance of Korn, and this only increased from day two onwards. As frustration and anger against the lack of water and other sanitary conditions understandably grew among the attendees, their rage was expressed through acts of tearing down plied walls and breaking down whatever artifacts they could find. People were also partying for days at a stretch now, with very little or no sleep whatsoever, and this, too, perhaps, played into driving them towards extreme and horrible activities. During Limp Bizkit’s performance of their song Break Stuff on the second night, people started trying to literally break down things in the area, including the audio center tower, from which the workers had to be rescued. The final act of the third night, and the overall festival, was supposed to be the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but there was a rumor that the organizers had planned a grand surprise at the end of the show. Speculations were rife among the crowds and even among some of the organizing team as well, as expectations had largely grown about what it might be.

Towards the end of the RHCP performance, an anti-gun violence NGO handed out candles to be lit in solidarity with the lives lost at the Columbine massacre and other such incidents, and this turned out to be the final nail in the coffin. As Jimi Hendrix’s Fire was being performed on stage, a literal fire had broken out, and Scher himself had to appear onstage to warn people about it. Such was the frustration against the organizers by now that the firefighters asked to control the situation simply refused to go out into the violent crowds who had now started to burn more things. When the RHCP act was over, people realized that there was no grand surprise awaiting them and that the festival was actually over, which drove them berserk, and they now put trailers and buses on fire. Twelve trailers, all with gasoline or petrol in them, exploded and were burnt to the ground, while people started pulling down other towers and cranes. The vendor area was heavily vandalized as well, as people looted goods and money and even tried to break open ATM machines to take away the cash. After waves of state police finally arrived and drove everyone out, the entire air force base was trashed, and scenes of it from the next morning were a sight to behold, in a very negative manner. With innumerable damage and trash visible all over the area, and burnt remains of vehicles and structures, some of which still had smoke coming out of them, the ’99 Woodstock venue did not look much different from a war zone.

How Did The Organizers React To This? Was There Any Repercussion For Such Mismanagement?

Michael Lang and John Scher continually denied any reports of misdemeanors or vandalism during the three days of the festival. In a number of press conferences and TV interviews held while the festival was going on, they kept claiming that every attendee was enjoying themselves and that nobody was unhappy about anything at all. When reports of physical harassment started coming out, Scher stated that they were the acts of very few individual miscreants that could not be controlled amidst such massive crowds. At the end of the third day’s massacre, Michal Lang surveyed the venue, which was now strewn with trash and debris, but the other workers present said that he did not seem to care much about the sheer dangers his workers had to face during the riots. One of the workers had also reported to them about the potential danger of allowing people to light candles in the area, and that the fire marshals had not approved of the idea, but none of their warnings were heard as the candlelight protest went on. Musicians obviously argued that they were there at the festival, after all, to perform their songs, which did contain violent themes, and that they could not be held accountable. While it is easy to argue that people, in general, had extremely violent and abusive mentalities, the sheer lack of any security and the overall temperament that the organizers had built in them cannot be ignored. The major blame for the incidents that took place, of course, fell on the organizers, but they denied any accountability for them.

More than twenty years later, too, there has been absolutely no repercussion on the miscreants or the organizers as the first cannot be tracked down, and the second possibility cannot be pinpointed as the ones most definitely at fault. While the disaster was indeed due to a number of factors coming together, the biggest factor of them all was still the horrible mismanagement. Even at present, John Scher refuses to take any accountability for the sexual assault cases, saying that he truly condemns the incidents but that he and the other organizers cannot be held responsible for the acts of a few. There also remains a theory that the organizers had approved of the candlelight protest, knowing very well of the possibility of widespread arson, because they wanted Woodstock to be in the limelight even after the event was over, which would bring them profits in a twisted no press is bad press sort of manner. Scher also obviously denies such claims. Finally, despite all the turmoil and chaos that unfolded over the three days, the four attendees who are interviewed in “Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99” state that the festival was the best event they have ever been to, and that they would not even think twice before attending another Woodstock if there was ever another one.

“Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99” is a 2022 documentary miniseries streaming on Netflix.

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Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya keeps an avid interest in all sorts of films, history, sports, videogames and everything related to New Media. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies, he is currently working as a teacher of Film Studies at a private school and also remotely as a Research Assistant and Translator on a postdoctoral project at UdK Berlin.

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