Music a sideshow at England's Woodstock
OK, you're at a rock festival and it goes on for four decades. The bands are mostly British groups you've never heard of, and anyway they don't play long enough. The bathrooms are disgusting, there are naked hippies everywhere, and you don't even have the appropriate pharmaceuticals. Why in the world are you here?
Good question, and "Glastonbury " almost answers it. England's annual Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts is little known to Americans but easy enough to explain: Imagine if Woodstock had kept recurring every blessed year (almost) since 1970 . On sacred ground, no less. Not far from Stonehenge and plonk in the middle of "England's green and pleasant land, " Glastonbury is the reputed burial site of the Holy Grail and an excellent place to go if you want to hear the music of the spheres. Or the Chemical Brothers .
Director Julien Temple ("Absolute Beginners ") filmed the fest from 2002 to 2005, and archival footage culled from sources public and private fills in the rest. The results are frustrating as musical history but strangely touching as evidence of the changes in a nation's sense of idealism. From hippies to punk to Cool Brittania, Glastonbury has surfed England's pop culture and only occasionally fallen off the board.
The story starts in 1970 -- the first festival was held the day after Jimi Hendrix's death -- but it was in 1971 that Glastonbury truly took root, with a pyramid stage built on the Glastonbury/Stonehenge "ley line, " and appearances by Melanie , Fairport Convention , and a young David Bowie . Footage shot by Nicolas Roeg (among others) captures the dazed hippies in attendance and the idealism of festival founder Michael Eavis , who inherited the family farm and decided to give it over to the flower kiddies once a year.
Eavis is still on the scene 35 years later, grizzled and taciturn from having tilted with hundreds of egos: pampered rock stars, locals filing suit to stop the fest, gatecrashers, and the ever problematic "travelers," a tribe of new age gypsies who have both helped and hindered the cause over the years.
The rise of the Wall is the most telling development. When punters jumped the fences in Glastonbury's early days, organizers looked the other way -- who wanted to harsh the vibe? The festival kept doubling in size and scope, though, and the crime rate soared, so various approaches at keeping the unpaying rabble out were tried: a storm fence, mobile security teams, two storm fences , and a moat.
Eventually a gleaming, impenetrable high-tech wall surrounds the grounds, cutting Glastonbury off from England and its own past. It's an ugly metaphor and it prompts Clash founder Joe Strummer to rail onstage against the festival's sold-out soul (he's seen apologizing to Eavis later). Bowie sings an all-too-appropriate "Heroes, " about lovers meeting by the Berlin Wall.
Those are two of the film's meager pop highlights. "Glastonbury" offers glimpses of some great acts, among them Bjork , Coldplay , Nick Cave , the Velvet Underground (during their 1993 reunion tour), Morrissey , Ray Davies , and Radiohead . Temple rarely lets us sit and enjoy them without rushing off to investigate the toilet facilities (dire), the mood of the local citizenry (grumbling), or the mental state of the audience (very, very high).
The sound quality isn't all that hot, either, and the movie's way too long at 138 minutes. As with most rock festivals, you had to be there, and if you're British you probably were, one year or another. In that case, "Glastonbury" is a pointed but essentially nostalgic tour of one country's more noble pop impulses. Otherwise, it's as muddy as Yasgur's farm back in the day.