Within the past month, all of us streaming service surfers have been blessed with two new documentaries variations of Woodstock festivals. With ‘Woodstock ‘99: Peace Love and Rage’ releasing this just a couple weekends ago and Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) releasing at the top of July; the stark difference in festivals and experiences described in these documentaries make for an incredible double feature night.
Woodstock ‘99, the sophomore feature from director Garret Price, is about the chaos that ensued from the festival that was supposed to give tribute to the love, peace, and happiness-filled Woodstock that came 30 years before. The tone of the documentary and the outcome of the festival was set when the opening title is a trigger warning for “graphic descriptions of sexual abuse.” From there we are locked into an experience that can only be compared to being strapped into a roller coaster that is climbing right towards the sun, and when it reaches its peak, barrels straight into the pits of hell.
The documentary, which showed how this Woodstock ‘99 festival was doomed from the moment that the attendees arrived on the first day, made sure to also note that Woodstock 1969 was romanticized through the power of media and its documentary. While it looked beautiful from the comfort of your home and from selective memories of the people that attended the original festival, there was a lot of death and chaos that ensued 30 years prior. It was clear that the festival founders didn’t learn from their mistakes – and the filmmakers of this documentary made sure to highlight that. They also made sure that there was no romanticizing of Woodstock ‘99. It was the complete opposite. It felt like watching archived footage of someone’s drug-fueled nightmare that was scored by 90’s nu-metal.
While the historical deep dive is an interesting study for someone like myself who was only born 5 years before this festival took place (my apologies to anyone I made feel old) and has no recollection of this event even happening, the documentary didn’t seem to have one steady story or point it was trying to tell. It had several points that it would jump around to throughout the film’s two-hour runtime such as DMX being in the festival’s lineup and his call and response stage performance causing the majority white male crowd to say “the n-word.” Or a side story about one young attendees’ journey to get to the pit when Metallica hit the stage and the journal that he kept with him to archive everything that he experienced during that weekend. There were amazing interviews woven into the footage from the likes of writers such as Pulitzer Prize-winner Wesley Morris who tried to glue everything together with his descriptions of the weekend that felt like poetry, but the editing didn’t do enough to hold it together. It felt more like a compilation of thoughts than a concise story.
One major point that the documentary made sure to bring home was just how disgustingly violent the crowd full of majority young white men truly became that weekend. With the numbers in attendance reaching nearly 300,000 and most of them being caucasian college fraternity members during the Limp Bizkit, Kid Rock, Girls Gone Wild era – the interviewees said that a lot of these men had no respect. With intense music, intense heat, alcohol, drugs, and sexual frustration – that entire weekend led to a grande finale of not an incredible music act, but an all-out riot. Within the sea of people, the camera caught glimpses of things being burned, banisters being toppled over, and acts of sexual assault are committed. One person described it as being “something out of Lord of The Flies,” but it was much worse than that. It was real.
Even with archive footage that has been seen before of the brutality brought upon the festival, the documentary still leaves us with the question of if it is possible to have another Woodstock. That itself feels like a white privilege that blankets over the entity that is the Woodstock name that the Harlem Culture Festival of 1969 never had the chance to receive. A festival full of footage that would be overlooked and neglected for almost 50 years until it was turned into a documentary; the perfect pick-me-up from the pandemonium of the Woodstock ‘99 documentary.
Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is the first, and hopefully not the last, of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompsons’ Jawns’ (a direct homage to A Spike Lee Joint). This documentary is the perfect counterpart to the Woodstock 99’ doc because this festival was actually in response to the violence in the world that had taken place the year prior. With the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. taking place in 1968, there seemed to be a threat of violence and unrest that was brewing in the African American and Hispanic communities. To bring peace and harmony to these communities, the organizers of the festival decided to put something together for the people to rejoice over the power of music. With this festival taking place the same summer of Woodstock ‘69, it was promoted as “The Black Woodstock.” It could not be sold to or picked up by anyone, so the footage sat in a basement for nearly 50 years. Thankfully two producers found the footage and brought it to the self-proclaimed savant of music history that is Questlove, and a movie was born. Rising from the ashes of racism and hatred to become a Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize-winning documentary.
Even from the start of the doc, it is simultaneously beautiful and heartbreaking. You get to see droves of black and brown people draped in so many unique styles, tastes, and preferences. To know that this is the first time that people are seeing this footage in half a century is dispiriting. The beauty of it, as an African American, is that the collection of archived images feels like found footage of a family BBQ.
With interviews of attendees and performers watching the footage for the first time since that summer of 1969, we are taken on an emotional nostalgia-filled journey that transports us to a time where a festival like this was needed for the people of America. Even more specifically the people of Harlem, where the festival took place that summer. To help us understand the circumstances of that timeframe and why that festival was so important, the documentary is filled with historical context inserted between the captivating performances from different acts and genres of music. To wrap up the documentary, we are left with a message of positivity and inspiration from the beautiful Nina Simone for the black youth to continue to be young, gifted, stand up for themselves, and take what is theirs.
With the juxtaposition of one documentary calling attention to the pure savagery of one festival, and the other documentary pinpointing just how free and peaceful the other is – it only makes sense to make this a perfect double feature. Lessons of history, the impact of music on people, and the understanding of individuals’ perspectives on their time at these festivals are perfect for people like me who weren’t around to understand the impact of these events. The Woodstock ‘99 doc seems to be part of a series that will continue to drop other episodes, so I don’t expect there to be any award buzz for that one – but I am willing to make an early call that that is not the case for Summer of Soul. Only time will tell.
Elijah Horton is a Long Island born, Orlando-based writer and photographer. Since he was a kid, Elijah has had a deep passion for movies, music, and photography.
That passion led him to Full Sail where he graduated with a film degree and a desire to make a film of his own one day. For now he’s just pretty good at writing about them.