Glastonbury (Director: Julien Temple, UK, 2006): For those on my side of the Atlantic who are not familiar with it, the Glastonbury Festival is England’s version of Woodstock and Burning Man rolled into one. Over the course of a long weekend each June, the pastoral setting is overrun with performance artists, buskers, ravers, rockers, stoners and just about anyone in the UK with an ounce of eccentricity. Oh yeah, and bands. It began in 1970, when farmer Michael Eavis organized a festival for a few hundred hippies. Recently, it’s grown in attendance to over 150,000 people. Along with that growth has come some unwelcome changes, such as the increasing presence of corporate sponsors, and, most notably in the film, the presence of a security wall that surrounds the entire property. The fence was constructed in 2001 after ongoing problems with gatecrashers, but the extensive security apparatus, including the wall, security cameras, and a substantial force of security police, seems at odds with the spirit in which the festival was founded. This in itself could have made a compelling film. But it’s not this film.
Instead, director Julien Temple (The Filth and the Fury) aims for a more impressionistic experience, using a mixture of amateur and professional footage shot over more than thirty years to give the viewer an idea of what it feels like to be there. While this conveys some of the mixture of emotions attendees must feel, it’s slightly disorienting. Organizer Michael Eavis pops up in footage from the 70s until the present, but we only gradually figure out who he is. As well, trying to cram as many bands from as many eras as possible into the film means that there isn’t a complete performance from any of them. And though there is a lot of endearing eccentricity on display, the film seems to revel in it just a bit too much, at the expense of conveying any coherent information about the festival and its history.
For example, there is a fascinating interlude in the middle of the film when Eavis allows the itinerant “Traveller” community to participate in the festival for a number of years. But by 1990, he has to throw them out after their community disputes erupt into violent fights during the festival. Just a bit of standard documentary exposition would have been welcome here. Same for the issues of security and sponsorship.
As it is, the film feels true to the spirit of anarchy that characterized the festival’s beginnings, and although it’s overlong at 138 minutes, it certainly communicates some of the exhilaration and confusion that make festivalgoers risk the (strong) possibility of torrential rains and knee-deep mud each year.