Less a traditional concert film than a schizoid performance collage, “All Tomorrow’s Parties” is a visually dazzling but eventually frustrating account of the idiosyncratic U.K. music festival. Assembled from countless videos shot by concertgoers, it comes closer to capturing the experience of attending a large festival than any docu this side of “Message to Love,” though it’s far less adept at capturing the actual music. It nonetheless should be a solid fest and DVD entry, and pure catnip for anyone who has Pitchfork.com bookmarked on their browser.
Devoid of narration, the film does little to explain the festival at its heart, and neophytes will be forgiven for not understanding exactly what’s going on. Founded in 1999, All Tomorrow’s Parties was intended as an alternative to the huge, commercially oriented festivals that flourished in the late ’90s, boasting an unusually intimate setting in which the performers camped out alongside the fans. Held at an abandoned seaside summer camp, the fest is “curated” by a different artist each year, ensuring a reliably eclectic collection of performers and an even more eclectic audience.
Much of the film consists of found footage shot by festgoers throughout the years (a co-directing credit is given to All Tomorrow’s People), and helmer Jonathan Caouette assembles it with maniacal energy, cutting rapidly from performances to fan hijinks to bizarre archival footage at will, splitting and quartering the screen and exploiting every nifty trick his editing software will allow. While the flood of images can sometimes become numbing, it’s also a brilliant way to convey the immediate experience of attending a festival, in which jostling with the crowd and getting distracted by the guy in a bear costume dancing next to you is every bit as important as watching the performances.
Where the docu comes up short is the music itself, which switches gears rapidly and rarely sticks to one performer for more than a quarter of a song. Obviously, the extended freeform improvisations of the Boredoms or Sonic Youth would be impossible to fully incorporate into a 90-minute film, but the blink-and-you-miss-it clips from the likes of Animal Collective and Slint constitute little more than a frustrating tease.
There’s also a bit too much self-congratulatory talk about the revolutionary nature of the event. To be sure, All Tomorrows’ Parties is sui generis in the festival world, absent corporate sponsors and commercial considerations, but after watching the nth homevideo snippet of drunken concertgoers raising a ruckus, one grows skeptical of its delusions of grandeur. As Jarvis Cocker (glimpsed in a brief cameo) once put it, “Is this the way they say the future’s meant to feel? Or just 20,000 people standing in a field?”
There are certainly highlights nonetheless, and the sight of comedian David Cross being heckled by a deranged Jesus freak in the audience, or Grizzly Bear playing an impromptu acoustic set while strolling up and down the beach, will certainly inspire some viewers to spring for airfare to the U.K. the next time the fest comes around. And that’s probably the point.