Wednesday, 18 October 2006

Glastonbury (2006)

Shut out and listen to the music

Julien Temple comes with great credentials. He was the director of the 1980s Sex Pistols documentary The Great Swindle, which captured the punk scene accurately, as well as demolishing the carefully cultivated public image of the band. Between his other Sex Pistols documentary in 2000 (this time authorised by the band), Temple’s documentary and musical films lack the brilliance of his maiden effort.

And then, we come to Glastonbury. Its premise is simple: unleash the filmmaker on the Glastonbury Festival from 2002 to 2005, let him hunt down additional footage and amateur home videos from the first instalment of the festival to now, and put together a documentary film that should provide an immersive experience of how it’s like to be at Glastonbury, as well as track its changes over the years.

Well, one could hope. But what Julien Temple delivers is a middling music video that goes on for far too long, and a film that is useless as a documentary. Glastonbury is a series of musical performances by various bands, matched with footage of crowds from over the years – crowds who never met those bands at the Festival. There is footage of absurdist street installation performances by some visitors, as well as shenanigans of latter, more unruly, violently antiestablishment and anti-Thatcher punks, and the smiling crowds from this millennium. And lots of people talking into the camera about how they get the Glastonbury vibe, or just performing for the camera. And of course, Michael Eavis, the gentleman farmer who started it all, occasionally enters the screen as he gets down to the task of planning and organising another year’s Glastonbury Festival, and dealing with the ever-increasing numbers.

That’s fine if all you want is to shoot a music video, but by decontextualising footage in such a cross-stitching exercise, much of how the festival has really changed from a small hippy gathering to an annual musical event (on the level of Womad) is glossed over. Despite the occasional voice-over historical segments, the visuals and music conspire to create a timeless, contextless, lump of always-now that is resistant to analysis.

Questions that could and should be asked cannot be asked because of this approach: Given that Michael Eavis admits the festival has evolved through the years, how and why exactly did the festival change from hippy flower power to anarchism to… well-behaved commercialism? Did certain crowds stop attending, replaced by new ones with different expectations of what to do at Glastonbury? What do the crowds do when they’re not at Glastonbury – Do they party elsewhere? Aside from Michael Eavis, what other groups were a semi-permanent or stable fixture at the festival? How did they contribute to the festival? Did the attending bands stay for the festival or did they just airlift themselves in and out just for the duration of their performances? How are bands chosen to perform at Glastonbury? Has the criteria changed? Could we have some interviews with the earlier participants and performers from the previous decades? When did commercial companies begin to put up tents and booths at Glastonbury? How does this compare to the Burning Man Festival in the US, the only other long-running counterculture music and social gathering?

All these questions are never asked or raised by the filmmaker, making Glastonbury more of a feel-good piece of merchandising for the festival than a serious documentary. It’s almost Julien Temple wants us to shut off our brains and just enjoy the music. The only realistic thing about this documentary is Mr Temple’s choice of music, which reflects the extremes of quality and taste that music programming at similar festivals; there is the unbearably bad stuff, the occasional gem, and the rest is simply overcommercialised music that feels completely out of place with the ethos (original? Discarded? Evolved, but into what?) of the festival.

Afraid to raise the big questions and the small questions, uninterested in delving deeper than the pretty surfaces, and intent on creating a mood that never really existed through matching period singers with modern crowds, Julien Temple’s documentary may provide the big party atmosphere and interesting visuals, but fails to document the festival. The whiff of Temple’s self-indulgence wafts through the air, as he bookends the movie with quotes from William Blake. Those verses may have meant something in Jerusalem, but feel ponderously pretentious and self-important when married to an anarchist and self-mocking festival. Like everything else in this movie, it just feels mismatched.

Viewers might be interested to know that better documentaries and musical captures of Glastonbury Festival exist. I recommend Glastonbury the Movie (1996) and Glastonbury Fayre (1972).

First published at incinemas on 16 November 2006

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