Perry Farrell Talks Lollapalooza Documentary Series and Three Decades of ‘Blowing People’s Minds’

Imagine a hardcore Black gangsta rapper going toe-to-toe with a wild-eyed white indie rock freak in makeup and shiny black leather pants, as the two repeatedly, gleefully, refer to one another using racial slurs. Then imagine those two men clasping hands and giddily doing a same-sex waltz on stage in front of 15,000 screaming suburban kids to celebrate their transgressive tango.

That is one of the first images — as well as the very last — that you will see in the new three-part Paramount+ documentary series Lolla: The Story of Lollapalooza, which premieres today (May 21). The sprawling doc, directed by Michael John Warren (Free Meek), uses the electric scene of Jane’s Addiction singer (and Lolla co-founder) Perry Farrell singing Sly and the Family Stone’s incendiary 1969 anthem “Don’t Call Me N—er, Whitey” with OG gangsta rapper Ice-T during the tour’s inaugural 1991 run as a framing device, to explain how and why Lolla changed music festivals in America forever.

It is one of Farrell’s favorite moments from the madcap ride through the fest’s three decade run, during which it blossomed from a multi-act touring anomaly to the industry standard for touring fests, before shrinking, floundering and finally relaunching in the early 2000s as a stay-put in Chicago — with tentacles that now reach throughout South America, Europe and India.

“I wasn’t thinking [about a] documentary at all,” says the eternally bright-eyed, future-focused Farrell, 65, during a Zoom call. “Because I feel our best work is ahead of us… people usually do documentaries at the end of things and I feel that Lolla is just getting started.”

It’s a classic Farrell forward spin on the festival he originally launched in 1991, as a swan song for his genre-defining alt rock band Jane’s Addiction. After falling in love with such well-established multi-day English festivals as Reading, Farrell and his partners — late promoter Ted Gardner, agent Don Muller and SAVELIVE CEO Marc Geiger — cooked up the idea for a traveling fest that would bring the best of indie rock to the masses.

Before the commercial internet, before cell phones or texting, freaks and geeks could only go to their hometown rock clubs or find each other in their local record store as they browsed the racks and flipped through zines like Maximum Rocknroll. After launching with an initial 1991 lineup topped by Jane’s and featuring Siouxsie and the Banshees, Living Colour, Nine Inch Nails, Ice -T & Body Count, the Butthole Surfers and the Rollins Band, Lolla quickly became a safe haven for the indie diaspora.

For a generation of musical misfits who loved art, nature and peace, it was the place where no one judged you based on how you looked, who you loved or what you listened to. Goths sat side-by-side with metal heads, grunge moppets shared space with indie nerds and hip-hop heads and everyone realized that they were not the only outsiders in their hometown.

The full story of Lolla is a wildly sprawling one, and director Warren says wrestling it into a three-plus-hour doc meant crawling through 20,000-30,000 hours of footage, much of it courtesy of MTV News, which thoroughly covered the fest for years. Luckily, there was no one on the planet who seemed like a better fit for the job.

“Every morning [my research team] would send me an email that felt like Christmas,” says Warren of the difficulty of discerning what to keep in the project given his embarrassment of taped riches. As much as he wanted to include the incredible full Pearl Jam sets from 1992 — during which singer Eddie Vedder would climb perilously high into the stage rigging and take death-defying leaps into the crowd — Warren says he had to remind himself to put his fan boy hat to the side, despite the huge impact the fest had on his life and later, career.

“It was personal for me, since I was at the first Lollapalooza when I was 17 years old in [my hometown of] Mansfield, Massachusetts,” he says. “I had not seen the world at all and me and my weird friends in an avant garde jazz band thought we were the only ones who felt the way we did about things that we were pissed about.” But as soon as he walked onto the Lolla grounds, he says, he found his tribe.

“There were thousands of us there — and if there were thousands there, there must be millions all over the country and the world!,” Warren recalls thinking. It’s a sentiment repeatedly driven home in the film by the pierced, punk haired and black-clad masses who may have come in the first few years for for Alice In Chains, Smashing Pumpkins, Beastie Boys and Dinosaur Jr., but who left turned on to Fishbone, Sebadoh, Royal Trux, A Tribe Called Quest, Stereolab, Shonen Knife and dozens of other less radio-friendly alternative acts.

Undaunted by the mountain of material, Warren set out to tell a roughly chronological tale of how Lolla grew from a scrappy idea for a traveling carnival, using just a handful of key voices instead of the sometimes overwhelming barrage of talking heads in other music docs. Farrell and his partners are key players, of course, with the former Jane’s singer acting as a kind of spirit guide for the entire journey, on which he’s joined by artists including tango partner Ice-T, Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, Chance the Rapper, Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, Living Colour’s Vernon Reid and L7’s Donita Sparks.

“It felt like a revolution,” Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor says in the doc of the accepting, electric vibe that saw audiences embrace his then-new band’s industrial earthquake of sound and chaotic vision.

They all tell the tale of how Lolla not only blew minds with the music on three stages, but also expanded them by providing space for a wide breadth of social, environmental and political voices.

With an early focus on offering information from a diversity of interests — from PETA to the National Rifle Association, pro-choice group NARAL, Greenpeace, vegetarian organizations and petitions to overturn the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, Lolla looked to blow minds with information as well as sonics. “I didn’t realize we were so ahead of the curve with gun control [and abortion rights],” Farrell says, adding, “It’s an ongoing process of blowing people’s minds from year-to-year.” Farrell continues to believe that the purpose of the festival is to expose the audience to the new, young rebels in music and to spread their message across the globe: “We never thought about the status quo, we only thought about he truth, what I considered radical fun with my friends.”

The film elegantly takes you through an initial year nobody was sure would hit, to a sold-out second run with the Chili Peppers, Lush, Jesus & Mary Chain, Pearl Jam, Ice Cube and Soundgarden. It chronicles registering thousands of voters each day, adding the stomach-churning Jim Rose Sideshow Circus to the mix, as well as a second (and later third) stage that exposed audiences to such then up-and-coming acts as Rage, Tool and Stone Temple Pilots.

All along, in addition to focusing on the attitudes and gratitude of the audiences, the doc weaves in elements of the larger culture at the time, from Tipper Gore’s PMRC slapping profanity stickers on albums (and Rage’s full-frontal protest of that move from the Lolla stage), to the missed opportunity to book Nirvana during their prime and the constant gripes that the event had gone “too mainstream.”

It traces the path of increasingly mega lineups, a return to punk roots and a 1996 Metallica-topped lineup that was not only controversial, but also the initial sign that just five years in, things may have begun to go sideways for the festival as a panoply of other package tours — including Ozzfest, Smokin’ Grooves, H.O.R.D.E. and Lilith Fair — took flight. After a final 1997 run with a mostly techno/electronica-focused lineup of Prodigy, Orbital, the Orb, Tool, Tricky and Korn, Lolla petered out and went silent for several years.

All along, though, Warren says the footage showed him that — as Morello says in the film — Lollapalooza was like a “Johnny Appleseed,” spreading the word about hip-hop and alt rock, and how much bigger the world outside your hometown was. Elsewhere in the film, Morello calls the trip from the underground to suburban amphitheaters across the country, the “Declaration of Independence of the alternative nation.”

“It was really important to tell the story of the cultural context, which happens in the very first episode,” says Warren. “What I’m proud of in our film is that you actually understand what is going on in America — not just about the music, but about the cultural revolution in youth culture. How kids were f–king pissed about the environment, gun safety and these things that are so painfully relevant today. It was almost mind-numbing to go through these things and see that the stuff we were so upset about are as bad as ever today.”

Warren points to that first taste, in which he saw Ice-T and his hardcore band play their then-controversial anthem “Cop Killer,” and his fear that they were all going to get arrested for indecency, along with the nearly naked Farrell and Jane’s. Warren says his impression of that inaugural tour was how “extremely dangerous” the whole prospect felt to him then. That narrative line of pushing the boundaries and connecting the dots between formerly disjointed music tribes is the crucial through-line of the film, and the festival.

After the 1997 meltdown, the third episode focuses on the fest’s phoenix-like rebirth in Chicago on the shores of Lake Michigan, where Lolla put down roots in 2005. Taking the show off the road has allowed it to sprout wings, growing into a massive annual event in the Windy City, as well as at satellite locations in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Paris and India.

“I think [Farrell] wanted it to be truthful and I know when he started seeing cuts it really struck him — this sounds self-serving — how good it was, and he was really relieved,” says Warren of the journey through the highest highs, lowest lows and almost inconceivably eclectic lineups over the years. This year’s event in Chicago will feature headliners SZA, Tyler, the Creator, Blink-182, the Killers and more.

With one eye always focused on the next adventure, Farrell takes a long, considered pause while contemplating the question of what Lollapalooza has changed in the larger culture and whether the movie gets any closer to capturing that shift.

“I think that I can’t take credit for anything Lollapalooza does,” Farrell says with a smile before unleashing a perfectly Lolla notion of what it all has, or does, mean. “I work, I serve [Rastafarian God] Jah, Jah makes the decisions … I just try to follow Jah’s direction.”

Check out the trailer for Lolla: The Story of Lollapalooza below and watch it on Paramount+ now.

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