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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Andrew Lawrence

Goths, gays, punks and surfers: behind the wild rise of Lollapalooza

Festival-goers attend day 3 of Lollapalooza at Grant Park in Chicago, Illinois
Festival-goers attend day 3 of Lollapalooza at Grant Park in Chicago, Illinois Photograph: Scott Legato/Getty Images,

On the spectrum of live music festivals, Lollapalooza is a hoary establishment – the big summer tentpole franchise that walked so Coachella, Bonnaroo and Burning Man could fly.

Michael John Warren remembers when Lollapalooza was cool – which is to say, this curious happening seemingly known only to him and the fellow brooders in his New England high school clique. “We were super into the first wave of American punk rock and making a lot of avant-garde punk-jazz music ourselves,” says the esteemed documentary director. “When I saw the lineup for the first Lollapalooza – Living Colour, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Nine Inch Nails – we had to go. We walk in and there are thousands of kids moshing, stage diving, pogoing – like, borderline riot status. That’s when I realized it’s not just me and my weird little art friends who feel this way. We’re all fucking angry.”

Warren’s latest doc, Lolla: The Story of Lollapalooza, is less a highlight reel of the past 30 years than a rumination on the cultural forces behind the music, a beat that still goes on. Produced in partnership with MTV Entertainment Studios, Lolla premiered at Sundance earlier this year and effectively, it’s a single film broken into hour-long thirds – ostensibly to make for easier streaming on Paramount+. A chunk of the first episode is devoted to what the Living Colour founder Vernon Reid calls “the kids of hippie divorce”, the latchkey gen Xers who turned out for the barnstorming festival each year to drink, drug and otherwise work out their frustrations to what their parents might charitably describe as “noise”.

And yet: during the festival’s 90s-era infancy, Lollapalooza not only helped guide the underground “alternative” music scene into the mainstream; it would convert many in that frustrated young crowd into registered voters, environmental activists and first amendment defenders on site. “In episode one, you have people talking about a petition to recall Clarence Thomas,” says co-executive producer James Lee Hernandez. “It just goes to show how much youth culture helps effect change, and how a lot of the problems we had still hang over us today.”

As the doc tells it, Lollapalooza inherited its sense of mission from the alt music godfather Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction. The band was winding down when Farrell had the brainwave to add a few of their favorite acts to their final bill. The idea, Farrell explains, was to create a carnival-like event where disparate ideas could be in communion and artists could experiment without commercial pressure. “Money doesn’t always help art,” he says in the film. “In fact, too much money destroys art.” Once Farrell hit on the name Lollapalooza, an old-timey word plucked from the Three Stooges, the festival hit the road for a 21-city tour.

No one really expected the traveling circus would become a cultural colossus – Farrell perhaps least of all. “His reaction to everyone’s reaction was great,” says Hernandez, recalling the experience of watching the film with Farrell and a full house at Sundance. “Even though he goes to all the festivals, just for him to see people really connecting with what he was doing in such a visceral way was really special to be able to watch.”

Lollapalooza would remain an itinerant event through the turn of the century before putting down permanent stakes in Chicago, my home town. Even though I haven’t attended the festival nor do I make a point of seeking out alternative music, the documentary was a reminder of how much I had absorbed via osmosis – through the alt radio station that was home to the city’s biggest shock jock, through the high school friends who made the pilgrimage. It brought back memories of the goths, gays, punks and surfers who took over Grant Park from the city’s boorish sports fans. In the doc, Ice-T calls Lolla the first eclectic American music festival. But for my money, it’s Chance the Rapper, a fellow native son, who really hits home. “If you’re in Chicago, you’re gonna try to get into Lolla. It’s just the thing to do.”

Throughout, the documentary harkens to a simpler time when MTV was the music authority that covered Lollapalooza like the Super Bowl. Besides being a venue for up-and-coming acts, Lollapalooza was fertile ground for protests against artistic and music censorship – with Rage Against the Machine memorably putting down their instruments to protest against Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center (authors of the explicit content advisory stickers) in the buff.

“Kurt Loder and Tabitha Soren and those guys were part of this era of music journalism that spoke to us teenagers like adults,” says Warren, who longs for the old way. “There are so many ways to find music, and I think people are feeling lost. I think we need to get back to … not a gatekeeper but a filter. Someone like Loder, whose credibility matters. It’s never going to be like it was when we only had three networks in this country. But I would love it to go back to when one person was a really trusted source of information.”

The executive producer Brian Lazarte, who teamed with Hernandez on the McMillions docuseries, said their production partnership with MTV Entertainment Studios gave them access to more than 30,000 hours of archival footage. A backstage sit-down with a frank Trent Reznor after Nine Inch Nails fumbled their ’91 debut is one scene that seems unimaginable in the current age of public relations. Another is Ice-T or the Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan doing spot interviews with random fans in the crowd. “They proved a model,” Lazarte says of Lolla’s founders. “Like, you can combine Ice-T and Henry Rollins. You can expose people to things they weren’t exposed to.” That includes supporting acts like the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow, a spectacle most doc viewers are likely to watch through their fingers.

But as more performers went on to stardom from the Lollapalooza stage – Pearl Jam, the Chili Peppers, Green Day – the festival evolved into the kind of bog standard multimillion-dollar commercial enterprise that Farrell set out to avoid all along. His decision to stick with it came after extensive soul searching. Ultimately, says Lazarte, “Perry has made peace with how art and commerce have to work together.”

Today, Lollapalooza endures as a Chicago fixture with some foreign offshoots and Farrell still very much in the mix. It’s because of him, the film-makers say, that they were able to wrangle so many of the rockers who played the festival. But the story of this fringe festival is as much those who came as those who conquered. “I took on this project because it sounded impossible. But it was also my culture. I’ve explored a lot throughout my career, but this is the first time I’ve turned back around and looked at my own life and put it out there for the world.”

  • Lolla: the Story of Lollapalooza is now available on Paramount+

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