I’ve attended the Glastonbury music festival seven or eight times since popping my Somerset cherry way back in 1995. My last one was in 2007, and while it’s obviously not the same watching on TV each June, a mixture of reasons have stopped me from from going back: primarily my wife, who I met that year, isn’t too interested, and I’d rather spend the money going on holiday with her instead, as it’s something we both enjoy. Also it’s very expensive these days (albeit still worth the entrance fee), it’s hard to get tickets, I’m becoming an old fart who likes the comfort of my own home and, lastly, it’s just not as good as it used to be.
Actually the last point isn’t true. Glastonbury is always great – if you like that kind of thing in the first place – but it’s one of those tired old phrases that veteran festival goers like to trot out every now and again. In Julien Temple’s documentary Glastonbury – which examines the history of the event from its inaugural year in 1970 up to 2005 – there’s even a clip of a sign at the festival which amusingly implores people to ‘queue here to complain that the festival isn’t as good as it used to be’. This festival one-upmanship goes way, way back: I remember a van full of blokes telling me that ‘the edge had gone’ as I arrived in the car park for my first taste of the event, and I also remember how untrue that seemed to me around an hour later.
What is undeniable, though, is that the festival has changed considerably over time, and continues to do so. This is for the better in the eyes of some and for the worse in the eyes of others, but change is the topic most thoroughly explored by Temple in his film, and he does this using a mix of live footage from the BBC, news clips from a variety of eras, new footage made at the festival between 2002 and 2005 and material contributed by recent attendees who have filmed their experiences on smartphones (he had to sift through over 54,000 minutes of this). Temple uses what is presumably a sizable amount of this collection and often jumps from one era to another, which works perfectly well and helps to form a good summation of the festival experience, creating an interesting framework that mirrors the experience of getting there, getting in, going a little crazy for a few days, and the Sunday night / Monday morning comedown at the end.
He also explores various themes, often political, which chronologically and cleverly tell the story of the festival at the same time. One of the director’s most impressive traits is his ability to explain the wider social context of his musical subject matter using a collage of archive footage, which often veers anarchically from the madcap and humorous to the serious and informative. (I’ve written about two more Temple documentaries here and here, if you’re interested.) Working here with editors Niven Howie and Tobias Zaldua, Temple creates sections that address the origins of the festival and the early, hippy-centric years, the growth in the early 1980s and Glastonbury’s relationships with CND and charities like Oxfam, the ‘traveller’ years and organiser / farmer Michael Eavis’s ever-evolving relationship with the traveller community, all the way through to the modern Glastonbury, which is as theatrical and interesting as ever but now features huge attendances and has welcomed the presence of corporate sponsors and service providers into the fold, such as banks and telecommunication companies.
This may be a film about a music festival, but it’s not just any music festival; Glastonbury has a green / left-wing political identity that no other (in the UK, at least) can match, so Temple includes relevant footage of the protests at Greenham Common and the infamous police violence toward travellers during the ‘Battle of the Beanfield’ in 1985 (Eavis allowed the bruised and battered travelling families back onto his land after the incident). Yet despite the inclusion of the various scenes of social unrest, the director is clearly aware that people attend Glastonbury to have a good time, and there’s plenty of that on display in the documentary, too. The crowds are fun to watch, an army of performance artists make it into the final cut, and the breadth of the music and (more generally) the creativity captured on film is impressive.
Best of all are the interviews with the festival’s attendees that appear every so often. Some interviewees are so high you fear they’ve left very important parts of their brains in Eavis’s field, but there are also interesting, sage-like figures, and others who are so passionate about the festival it helps them through the other 51 weeks of the year they spend in jobs they dislike. The make-up of this crowd has changed over time, but there are some constants: there’s Eavis, with his distinctive beard, his farmland in the beautiful Vale of Avalon and the live music, but by the end Temple’s documentary smartly suggests that things haven’t really changed all that much. Essentially people still go there simply to listen to live music in several fields and go a bit crazy for five days.
If music festivals aren’t usually your thing this might still be of interest, although the frenetic pace will not be for everyone; there are times when I wish Temple’s films would settle down briefly so that my mind can process what’s going on, but that energy is also hugely enjoyable if you’re wide awake and in the right mood, and it makes his documentaries distinctive, so it’s difficult to criticise too much; the style is also well suited to the subject matter here. Perhaps Glastonbury is one of those niche documentaries that really only appeals to people who have been to the event, but it commendably addresses much more than just the festival, and offers a wider social context that is perhaps lacking in Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock or Murray Lerner’s film of the 1970 Isle Of Wight Festival struggled to incorporate.
Directed by: Julien Temple
Starring: Michael Eavis, A Cast Of Thousands
Running Time: 135 minutes