I'm not exactly sure what I want in a documentary about a rock festival, but I'm sure that it's not in Glastonbury. The film covers the 40-odd year history of the British Woodstock and bleeds the comparison so dry that there hardly seems to be any new ground worth covering. Before I even sat down to watch the film, it occurred to me that director Julien Temple might try for mileage by wedging in some references to druids or other ancient stone-worshippers that populated the Glastonbury landscape eons ago. Turns out Temple was way ahead of me -- Glastonbury begins with a re-enactment-history-lesson that has everything but Simon Schama to narrate it. Moving forward a few thousand years, we get a predictably odd parade of oddballs arriving from all corners -- seemingly on foot -- to rock out and dip into some easy-breezy spiritualism at the festival location -- Worthy Farm in South West England. We see nude moped riders, a dude playing guitar upside down in a harness, people with Braveheart-faces, a gorilla carrying a man in a cage, and knights in chainmail.
Much of the film is organized around the point of view of Michael Eavis, a farmer who owns the festival site and has hosted it since 1970. His love-hate relationship with all attendees who show up every year is interesting to explore, to a point, but it eventually give the film a tinge of officialdom; for every stellar captured performance by Radiohead or Nick Cave, there's a scene delving into whether or not Eavis has overcharged some itinerant worker for labor, and so forth. When Temple isn't focusing on Eavis, he's leap-frogging back and forth between footage from different eras with no concern for centering the audience in a time and place even for the duration of a scene. For example, a shot tightly focused on Cold Play's lead singer during a performance might be paired with what seems like a reaction shot of someone from 1971 -- there's a bizarre compulsion at work here to 'Oliver Stone' the film up with a complicated, busy visual pallette. Also, the older the footage is, the more it has the feel of impersonal stock footage.
The biggest drama that emerges from the film is one concerning the 'travellers,' which I'm pretty sure is British polite-speak for homeless people. These, er, travelers are a collection of hard-riding outlanders who make a habit of trekking to the Glastonbury grounds during the festival, where they inevitably cause enormous amounts of trouble and riots in 1990. Eventually, a giant fence is constructed solely for the purpose of keeping them out, which leads to the inevitable accusations of "selling out." I liked one quote from a Glastonbury attendee -- "someone has to take a stand against these unwashed people." I agree. Temple spends a fair amount of time and energy in the film trying to catch cops doing wrong, and seemingly tags on hours and hours of fence patrol. Except when scattered riots are breaking out, the festival vibe seems to hover somewhere between mouthy liberalism -- one artist demands that any New Labor people go home -- and irony-friendly contentment, exampled by the big sign that reads "Queue here to complain that the festival is not as good as it used to be."
Musical highlights are few and far between, and some of them come from that weird 90s alternative period that hasn't come arrived at any station of retro-coolness yet; for example, there's a lengthy performance by Bjork of Human Behavior and The Prodigy is seen for a brief time. One of the most eye-catching numbers is an angry, rambling act by Joe Strummer in which he ends up going off on the many cameras watching him and barks "You can't even have a piss without some cunt filming it." Temple blocks a Radiohead performance against a mud-play sequence and films a bit of a nice Bowie show, but other than that, unless you happen to be a big Ray Davies fan, you shouldn't expect some awe-inspiring collection of musical performances. In fact, some of the best later moments in the film come when Temple leaves the main-stage area and takes his camera to the carnival activities on the periphery of the festival -- there are fire-twirlers, pillow-glove boxers, acrobats and those smokey, mobile grills and kitchen that are apparently ubiquitous on both sides of the Atlantic.
Comparisons between the 1990 Glastonbury festival and the contemporary Woodstock festival that went off the rails with burnings, would have been instructive. Temple clearly wants to get at the idea of an angrier, less civilized strain in today's youth culture, but he divides his energies between showing us examples of that anger and showing us, for example, corporate-creep imagery like a Comverse sneaker-blimp in the sky. Despite its meandering, Glastonbury has its share of arresting, random imagery, just as you would hope from any point-and-shoot documentary at a big music festival -- a shot of a baby being bathed in a big, dirty bucket sticks in my mind. There's sex in the fields and some old but interesting footage of Arabella Churchill -- granddaughter of Winston -- who was a key supporter of getting the festival launched. A man is seen walking with a pharonic-dog headpiece on. What to make of these random visuals? I would point to an early moment in the film when someone says, with a heavy British sigh in their voice -- "It has to do with falling in love and loving life....all that sort of thing."