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Friday, July 6, 2007
Mother of music fests
As the summer festival season draws closer in Japan, now is a good time to take a moment and recall the festival that has served as an inspiration for so many others (including Fuji Rock Festival). No, I'm not talking about Woodstock, which is a great example of how to run a nonsustainable event in which corporate greed sucks out the vibe like a vampire.
Rather, the fest I'm talking about is Glastonbury, the British festival of rock music and craziness that's been going strong since 1970. Held on the private property of farmer-turned-festival organizer Michael Eavis, in the epicenter of English myth (King Arthur was supposedly buried in Glastonbury, southwest England), Glastonbury delivers three days of music, madness and frequently mud on a nearly annual basis.
Along comes a documentary on the history of the festival, entitled simply "Glastonbury," and directed by none other than Julien Temple. Anyone who recognizes Temple's name may raise an eyebrow; Temple's career is closely identified with punk and The Sex Pistols, whom he immortalized in his films "The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle" and "The Filth and The Fury." One of the tenets of punk was a knee-jerk hatred of all things "hippie," and Glastonbury is certainly a direct descendant of the U.K.'s blossoming of "flower power." (See the DVD "Glastonbury Fayre," which documents the first festival in 1970 featuring Melanie, Traffic and Fairport Convention, for more evidence.) And yet Temple — like his friend and fellow '70s punk alumnus Joe Strummer, who appears in the film attacking a BBC camera crew — obviously finds common cause with both Glastonbury's independence and its continuing experiments in controlled anarchy.
Temple's film, in contrast to well-known festival docs like "Woodstock" or "Monterey Pop," doesn't seek to focus on one weekend or on presenting a compendium of live performances. Instead, he attempts to capture the overall vibe of the festival, which includes a lot more than what's happening on-stage.
Temple and his crew shot massive amounts of footage at Glastonbury between 2002-2005, and he also dips deep into the 900 hours of archival and home-movie material collected from past festival-goers. He wields this as a montage of Glastonburies past and present, a blur of styles, generations and film stocks.
Music fans should note that the film includes live performances by Bjork, Radiohead, Primal Scream, Blur, Massive Attack, David Bowie, The Prodigy, Morrissey, Cypress Hill, The Chemical Brothers and many more. Music fans should also note that few of these performances are as long as a full song; Temple is as interested in the politics of gate-crashing, or the people who hoover the port-a-potties with a huge vacuum truck, as he is with the music. That having been said, the killer performances come from where you might not expect it — Faithless completely rip it up, while Sahara bluesmen Tinariwen (coming to Tokyo in October) are the epitome of cool.
The film explores Glastonbury's origins as a sporadic hippie festival in the '70s — says landowner Michael Eavis, "the farm is such a dead loss, we have to look to other ways of making money" — its growth in the '80s as a rallying point for those fed up with law and order Thatcherism, and its evolution into a less anarchic but massively attended event in the '00s.
The biggest issue addressed, one common to all parties, is how to continue getting legal permission to put on the event. Eavis has to contend with issues like noise and litter complaints, gate-crashing and overcrowding, rampant drug use, and rather rowdy bands of New Age Travelers (Britain's caravan-based neogypsies) who famously rioted in 1990, throwing molotov cocktails at security. Temple documents Eavis' attempts to balance freedom and anarchy with the need for control, in order to continue staging the event.
Temple makes the case that, like with Burning Man festival in America, the nation needs a few days a year when it can forget the ticking clock and buttoned collars of society and drift into the unknown, a 72-hour dream of communal dance-floor ecstasy, and an anything-goes credo that encourages creatively mad behavior. Just look at the punters Temple has caught on his camera: a man dressed as a gull and barking at passersby, giant mutant insects, a butler bowing autistically to everyone and no one, a gaggle of Winston Churchills, horsehead people, dwarves, mohawked punks, a green-winged elf, a dayglo demon with a giant spark-shooting phallus, knights in armor, a naked girl crawling in (and eating) mud, and a ballerina twirling in midair suspended from a massive balloon. Really, it all makes Pete Doherty's crowd-surfing seem a bit tame.
Glastonbury's future has always been precarious; most recently, the festival took a year off (in 2001) due to crime and massive gate-crashing. The five-year license the festival received in 2002 — after adding a £1 million ($2 million) security fence — expires this summer, and problems with transport and ticket muggings continue. On top of that, Eavis turns 72 this year; like BBC legend John Peel, it's hard to imagine anyone replacing him, though his daughter is reportedly poised to take over. Someday, maybe, the party will end, and when it does, we can thank Temple for his film, a vivid piece of cultural history that does the subject full justice.