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Because it’s a chronicle of a rock festival that began a comparatively recent 37 years ago, Glastonbury ought to be easier to follow than Loach’s film. Instead, it’s substantially more hermetic. Fans of British pop and eccentricity in general should have some fun, watching not only the musicians but also the fans whose elaborately goofy attire suggests that contemporary England owes less to Winston Churchill than to Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Full comprehension of the spectacle, however, is unlikely. This is one of those obsessively cinéma vérité documentaries that really ought to come with a study guide.
The Glastonbury Festival began in 1970, but Glastonbury starts a bit further back—in prehistory, actually. Because the fest site’s historic neighbors include Stonehenge and Glastonbury Tor, director Julien Temple opens with William Blake’s “Jerusalem,” black-and-white footage of worshipping neo-pagans, and babble about King Arthur, the Holy Grail, and Joseph of Arimathea, who supposedly brought his nephew Jesus to visit the area. The kid must have been bummed to arrive 2,000 years too early to see the reunited Velvet Underground, whose “All Tomorrow”s Parties’ is the first number on the film’s set list.
Lou Reed, Maureen Tucker, and Sterling Morrison are among the few Americans allowed entrance to the movie, whose music is largely provided by acts that are much bigger over there than here. American Britpop fans will recognize Pulp, Blur, Radiohead, Coldplay, and Morrissey, but Temple goes deeper (or shallower) to include Faithless, Stereo MCs, Energy 52, Babyshambles (with a guest appearance by Kate Moss), and the Levellers.
That last band’s appearance illustrates a central problem with the film. Temple’s editing scheme bounces through the decades, making only casual connections among the bits of archival film, clips from a 1971 concert movie, Glastonbury Fayre, and the 2002-2005 footage actually shot for this movie. Sometimes a theme briefly coalesces, but only scholars will be able to follow these mini-essays. The section on the travails of the Thatcher-era “travelers”—who were driven from an annual gathering at Stonehenge and found a home at the Glastonbury fest, only to clash with security there—is more impressionistic than historical. You have to know that the Levellers were a traveler (aka “crusty”) outfit to understand why the neo-Celtic jam band enters at this point.
Such sequences should make sense to pop-savvy Britons or to faithful readers of New Musical Express. They’ll understand that the brief shot of a portable toilet with a sign reserving it for the Manic Street Preachers recalls an intense pop-world controversy on the working-class Welsh band’s alleged loss of authenticity. Or that Joe Strummer’s attack on the cameras filming him was a comment on Britain’s rising use of video surveillance. Mostly, though, the film offers the chance to experience the festival—which has gone from wannabe Woodstock to Las Vegas erected annually in a field—from the safety of a theater. You aren’t exposed to the rain, mud, bad parenting, public urination, and huge quantities of excrement to which Temple gives as much screen time as he does Tinariwen or Primal Scream. (The toilet-pumping scenes give new meaning to the title of Temple’s second Sex Pistols opus, The Filth and the Fury.) Glastonbury’s frantic pace is apparently supposed to simulate the experience of attending the festival, but people watching it on-screen will probably appreciate not actually being there.