Is the Woodstock Documentary Fair to Griffo and City of Rome? (Opinion)
The crowd inside the Cinema Capitol, the smaller theater next door to Rome's Capitol Theater, was bracing for the worst on Friday night as the HBO documentary, Woodstock 99: Peace, Love and Rage began streaming on HBO and HBO Max.
Most of the people who attended were either at the event 22 years ago at Rome's shut down Griffis Air Force Base, or they were a part of the planning process. Attendees included NYS Senator Joe Griffo, who was prominently featured in the documentary. Joe was mayor of the city of Rome at the time and was probably the most important driving force behind holding the event in the city.
"No matter what the producers do, there's no way they can make this community look bad," Griffo told us this past week, appearing on WIBX's Keeler in the Morning Show. "Everything we had control of ran smoothly." Griffo even believes that labeling the fiery end of the event on Sunday night as a "riot" is not accurate and over-exaggerates the real facts.
HBO's account of the massive and iconic music festival is the first of 3 documentaries that are being produced on Woodstock 99, including one that is currently in production by a London based company for Netflix. Several people in the area have been contacted and interviewed by producers and no one has been given an advance screening to see what kind of slant the producers have planned; thus, tensions were a bit high when the show went live at 9 p.m..
"I wonder how they'll make us look," one person asked. I spoke up and drew a chuckle from some of the 25 or so people who were in attendance when I said, "Good luck Joe." Based on a few reviews I had read, I felt like he needed the luck as the 110 minute feature we were about to watch publicly was going to be a bit of a tough pill to swallow.
Actually, I feel the producers did a pretty good job telling the story of Woodstock 99 and it was interesting to see a few local people and some of the local businesses that were spotted in the background. However, there was a general theme that ran through most of the program that I found unsettling.
It's almost as if they took everything that happened back then, and judged it by today's standards and political dynamic. The producers repeatedly featured a few key national figures throughout the program who were, I feel, improperly presented as "experts," who continuously passed inaccurate judgements on the event, the organizers and the people who attended. They must have said "white males" about 50 times throughout the entire documentary. I felt they tried to imply that Woodstock 99 was dominated by mostly white, privileged, angry caucasian animals who raped innocent young white ladies, bathed in sewage and in the end, burned everything to the ground. There was also this general theme about evil capitalism and corporate greed, which drove these young angry white males to acts of violence and debauchery. Some of these issues did play a role in the assessment afterwards that was formulated on MTV, in the national media, and certainly on my radio show during the days and weeks following the event.
The problem with this documentary is the fact that they oversimplified the root cause of the unfortunate ending and over generalized and exaggerated everything else that went wrong with the entire weekend. One could also conclude that despite referencing the social dynamic that what was happening in America in 1999, including Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinski, they judged Woodstock participants and organizers as if the event happened yesterday and NY Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was giving the post mortem.
I don't believe the documentary made Rome or the Mohawk Valley look bad and I even think then Mayor Joe Griffo came out looking pretty good. At one point, he was on-camera urging the Red Hot Chili Peppers to quell the crowd as the fires burned throughout the concert footprint. Unfortunately, the band did just the opposite and played tribute to Jimi Hendrix by performing his song, Fire. The band would later state that the choice of songs was a favor to Hendrix's sister which intended to salute the legendary rocker, and was not meant to stoke the crowd.
I blame the producers, Michael Lang and John Scher; but, there's not one or two issues that caused the bad ending at the festival- there are several. First, the lineup of acts was asking for trouble. I remember discussing on the radio that bands like Korn, Limp Bizkit, Insane Clown Posse, and others, combined with other genres was a combustible mix, and it seems like it was. The lack of water really was a problem and so was not having the proper planning in place to empty the portable toilets. The producer's plan for security was a foolish and to make matters worse, so many of those security people reportedly just used their volunteerism with the "Peace Patrol" as a way to get into the festival for free. It was also a crazy idea to hand out candles for free on Sunday night at a time when there was almost no security in sight.
I also think the 1999 Woodstock attendees were looking to recreate a moment in history that they didn't understand. There was a political, cultural and sexual movement underway in the country back in '69. The kids of Woodstock '99 had no cause, as they were just looking for a good time, like on MTV at Daytona Beach for Spring Break. It was the perfect recipe for disaster- thousands of immature kids, endless booze, drugs and sex and absolutely no rules. Add to that young women who got drunk, stripped off their clothes and crowd surfed over young drunk guys, and you find yourself with a predictable outcome. I should say, the nudity was no excuse for sexual assault, but in a crowd so large, you had to expect there would be quite a few male deviants who could never be trusted around any female, let alone a naked one above their head.
There were clearly problems at Woodstock 99 and even I still argue with Senator Griffo over my use of the word "riot" describing Sunday night. I called it a riot then and I stand by the assessment today. But Griffo is right when he says for the majority of the crowd and the bulk of the weekend, these people had the time of their lives. There were a lot of flaws and sadly, some people were hurt, a few people even died. Unfortunately, injuries and tragedy occurs in almost every large scale event, let alone one that drew nearly half a million people.
HBO's documentary, Woodstock 99: Peace, Love and Rage is now streaming on HBO On Demand and HBO Max. It's worth watching.
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