In the ten years since Barry Hogan founded All Tomorrow’s Parties (ATP), the music festival has grown in scope, esteem, and international reach. With relatively modest roots in the Belle & Sebastian-curated Bowlie Weekender, the ATP formula involves artists and/or fans choosing a lineup, vacationing together at holiday camps, and rocking around the clock until the lineup has been exhausted.
Perceived as having fewer corporate connections than most of the other high profile music festivals, ATP has nevertheless become a brand. Concert film All Tomorrow’s Parties, arriving on DVD in time for the tenth anniversary of the festival, is both a celebration of the festival’s history and a sign that someone felt the spirit of ATP could be communicated commercially, however weary of corporate sponsorship the festival remains.
All Tomorrow’s Parties is the product of “All Tomorrow’s People”, a collective directing credit that accounts for the hundreds of camera operators and several editors that collected and assembled the footage. Cinematographer Vincent Moon and director Jonathan Caouette are noted as key contributors. Although the Beastie Boys’ Awesome, I Shot That seems like a natural precedent for what All Tomorrow’s Parties attempts, the effect is much closer to Caouette’s documentary Tarnation. However, while the fractured form and hyperactive editing of Tarnation reinforced Caouette’s chaotic personal journey that was the subject of that film, All Tomorrow’s Parties lacks a strong motivation for its “kaleidoscopic” aesthetic and structure.
By using artists and attendees to gather the footage, the filmmakers that ultimately shaped All Tomorrow’s Parties rely on too diffuse a perspective and/or fail to try hard enough to create a unified vision of the festival. Their goal might have been to reveal the subjectivity of the experience, but the text of the film—the sounds and images, and especially testimonials that appear—foreground the “oneness” so frequently that the perceptual subjectivity and relativity work against the stated theme of the film (and by extension, of ATP itself).
That’s not to say that the film fails to represent the festival. In fact, the collage approach does massage the sensory registers in effective ways, leaving the viewer with a sense of having spent time with the campers. But so many times the film appears to be onto something revelatory and then cuts away, perhaps missing the necessary material to continue the ongoing story. The lack of a decisive shooting strategy frustrates attempts to shape the footage into a meaningful narrative.
Complaints about the “semi-found” approach aside, the film is to be commended for making the most of the material in some sequences that manufacture a structure for the audience. The exposition and arrivals blend seamlessly into the loose form, yet serve their introductory purposes. At other points, the film combines material shot at different times and places to create seemingly simultaneous activity. This is especially true of the beginning and end of the film, during which such structural decisions are appreciated.
Also, the attention to the cycle of day, night, morning, day, night, etc. accurately conveys the non-stop celebration that occurs at ATP as it mixes the mundane activities of being on vacation (cramped quarters, mornings on the beach, parties on the move) with the spectacular circumstance of a continuous mind-blowing concert lineup. Fortunately, the film more often than not pays the proper attention to the artistic prowess on display, which saves the whole of All Tomorrow’s Parties from playing too laboriously like someone else’s vacation slideshow.
Blink and you’ll miss them—cameos by Kevin Shields and Eleanor Friedberger are one early sign that campers and artists do really experience this festival together. There is little sense of the kind of hierarchy that might distance the performer from the spectator at a larger festival. The film juxtaposes archival interviews with Jerry Garcia, Iggy Pop, and Patti Smith with on-site comments by Thurston Moore, and the impression is that ATP has realized (through curators/participants like Moore) the free spirit of youth culture as manifested in rock music. Moore comes off a little naïve, suggesting that record companies need to be destroyed, but he highlights for the viewer the importance and rarity of ATP’s lack of corporate sponsorship/intervention.
Another nice touch is that Iggy Pop (with the Stooges) and Patti Smith both appear in present day performances as invited guests at the festival, which lovingly connects their decades-old punk rock mission to the site of its inheritance today. It should be noted that Patti Smith, who plays over the closing credits, pretty much out-performs anyone else that appears in the film – young or “old”.
Other highlights of the performances include Daniel Johnston, whose career renaissance proves to be no fluke when he visits ATP. The young crowd follows him as he moves from courtyard to chalet to stage, performing all along the way. Johnston is clearly moved by the experience, likening the festival to college or “rock and roll high school”. Warren Ellis plays in sets with Dirty Three and Grinderman and acts as a tour guide for a couple of scenes within the film. Such direct engagement with Johnston and Ellis works so well that one wonders if more artists might have opened up to the cameras if given the chance. This is another aspect of the film that would have benefited from a more decisive shooting strategy.
Lighting Bolt provides two of the best moments in the film, as the band’s official performance drives a song-requesting fan to head-banging ecstasy and an impromptu show on the lawn inspires anger from vacationing fogies who don’t appear to be there for the music. Similarly electric bands like the Mars Volta and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are on screen too briefly. Those are certainly two surefire live acts that deserve to have their performances documented in a more sustained manner. In an example of broad contrast, Les Savy Fav’s truly embarrassing black face act segues into Akron/Family’s soulful singalong. That the editors give any time to the worthless ironic pose of Les Savy Fav is puzzling, but the unintentional counterpointing of Akron/Family’s effortless brilliance is a good corrective touch.
Finally, there are two moments that offer rare behind-the-scenes perspectives. These have more in common with traditional concert films, and their inclusion does inspire a wish to see more content of the sort. We see David Cross bomb on stage during a comedy set that is met with silence, then heckling. A few moments later, Cross is behind a camera confronting one of his hecklers, who tells the comedian that it all worked out okay because a fellow audience member poured a beer on him for being unruly. This moment speaks to the self-correcting society of ATP in a way none of the other footage manages to do.
Also, Sonic Youth debates the key of one of their songs backstage before coming to a consensus about the proper chords. Kim Gordon looks at the camera and says, “We’re so under-rehearsed”. Immediately following that statement, the film cuts to a blistering performance by the band. The effect of such purposeful editing is strong in this sequence, and one wonders why this kind of cutting is so woefully underused elsewhere in the film.