‘Lolla’ review: ‘The Story of Lollapalooza’ an interesting doc on an epicenter of rock

In a little more than two months, Chicago will again gear up to host Lollapalooza, with a total of more than 400,000 attendees flocking to Grant Park from August 1-4 to see headliners including Tyler, the Creator; Hozier; SZA; The Killers; Blink-182, and Melanie Martinez. It’s a giant, heavily sponsored enterprise, generating hundreds of millions for Chicago’s economy and turning a tidy profit for organizers, with prices ranging from $149 for a bare-bones, one-day general admission ticket to $4,500 for a four-day Platinum pass, and luxury cabanas going for tens of thousands of dollars.

For Gen Z and even some younger Millennials, they’ve never known a time when Chicago wasn’t the annual home for what remains one of the biggest musical festivals in the world, but that wasn’t always the case. The three-part Paramount+ documentary series “Lolla: The Story of Lollapalooza” serves as a solid video history document for younger fans of Lolla, and a trip down Alt-Rock Memory Lane for those of us who attended some of the very first shows.

Directed by Michael John Warren (“Spring Awakening: Those You’ve Known,” Jay Z’s “Fade to Black”) and produced by MTV Entertainment Studios and FunMeter, in partnership with C3 Presents (producer of Lollapalooza), the docuseries sometimes comes across as an extended infomercial for Lolla. Still, it doesn’t shy away from chronicling the ups and downs of the festival, from its early days as an anti-establishment, activist, alt-rock tour, through some growing pains and a loss of identity, through the demise of Lolla and eventually its resurrection as a wildly popular annual event that has become a part of Chicago’s (and the world’s) cultural landscape.

‘Lolla: The Story of Lollapalooza’

Like just about any documentary series in any genre, “Lolla” features recollections from key participants who sit alone, often in stark settings — and Perry Farrell is arguably the most dapper and stylish interview subject you’ll ever see, sharing his insights while wearing an ensemble that includes boots and scarf, and sipping from a bottle of what appears to be red wine throughout.

In the opening episode, titled, “F— the Man,” we’re told Lollapalooza was inspired by the Reading Music Festival in England, where some 60 bands performed over a long weekend. In 1991, Farrell had reached the end of the road with Jane’s Addiction (“We really couldn’t stand each other”), and the Lolla co-founders (Farrell among them) came up with the idea of modeling the band’s last tour after Reading, with alternative opening acts. “All I thought was this was a farewell party for my band,” says Farrell.

With Ice-T & Body Count, Living Colour, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Henry Rollins, among others, joining the tour, the newly christened Lollapalooza picked up steam at every stop, highlighted by a turnout of 30,000 at the World Music Theatre in Tinley Park, where Nine Inch Nails killed.

“They kicked everybody’s ass,” says Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine. “It was a clarion call that there was a different kind of music that could be harder than heavy metal.” Adds Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails: “Culturally, something was shifting.” The decision was made to make Lolla an annual thing.

Lollapalooza kept its alt-cool cred going in 1992, with acts including Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soundgarden, Ministry, Pearl Jam and Ice Cube — but within just a few years, corporate labels were lobbying to place their bands on the bill, and the very success of Lolla worked against its reputation as a truly alternative showcase. By the mid- and late 1990s, Lollapalooza was criticized for going too big — as when Metallica headlined in 1996 — or too eclectic, e.g., when Farrell became enamored with electronic music before it exploded and the fest featured headline acts such as The Prodigy and Orbital.

The crowd enjoys a Metallica set during a stop of the 1996 Lollapalooza tour in Pecatonica, Illinois.

The crowd enjoys a Metallica set during a stop of the 1996 Lollapalooza tour in Pecatonica, Illinois.

After just seven years, Lolla was over. There was a one-year revival in 2003, but the tour was canceled in 2004 due to disappointing ticket sales.

Enter Chicago. In Episode 3, we see how the organizers of Lolla pitched the Chicago Park District, promising $500,000 that could be used to pay for local programs. Against low expectations and some resentment about all the street closures, Lolla was a hit in 2005 and built momentum each year.
We see great footage of a little-known Lady Gaga on a smaller stage in 2007, Rage Against the Machine performing in front of an enormous crowd in 2008, Gaga returning as headliner in 2010.

Chance the Rapper talks about getting caught sneaking into Lolla in 2011 and recalls that a friendly security guard “let me post up” to watch the concerts. Two years later, Chance was on a side stage, and in 2017, he gave a main stage performance in front of 100,000 fans. Says former mayor Lori Lightfoot, “This is a big deal in Chicago. It is definitely part of the DNA of who we are as a city.”

She’s not wrong.

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