Film Review: ‘Spark: A Burning Man Story’

Although it purports to offer an inside look at the annual festival, Steve Brown and Jessie Deeter's documentary offers a less-than-fully immersive experience.


Larry Harvey, Katy Boynton, Jon La Grace, Otto von Danger, Michael Mikel, John Law.

There are no spectators at Burning Man, only participants. But that core principle doesn’t apply to “Spark: A Burning Man Story,” a documentary that purports to offer an inside look at the annual DIY festival of self-expression and artistic freedom that materializes every Labor Day weekend in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Armchair voyeurs can soak it all in when the film launches Aug. 16 in limited theatrical play and Aug. 17 on VOD, though they may be disappointed with carefully curated imagery more suggestive of a promotional video than of a fully immersive experience.

Tyro feature helmers Steve Brown (a tech-world entrepreneur) and Jessie Deeter (director of the “Frontline” documentary “Death by Fire”) bring a clear reverence to their Burning Man chronicle, establishing the event as an ephemeral utopia built on values of “decommodification,” a “gifting economy” and “communal effort.” That celebratory approach yields striking visuals but minimal insight, though one suspects the Burning Man founders’ reputation for maintaining strict approval over anything filmed onsite is at least partially responsible for the on-message presentation, fleeting nudity and near-complete avoidance of drug use.

“Spark” begins with a rather perfunctory history lesson explaining Burning Man’s humble origins as an impromptu summer-solstice celebration in 1986 at San Francisco’s Baker Beach, with a total of 20 attendees. Within a decade, Burning Man moved to the desert and began attracting thousands with its free-spirited counterculture ethos. But booming attendance necessitated the introduction of basic rules and regulations for safety and crowd-control purposes, suddenly putting the festival at odds with its founding “anything goes” principles, while also raking in a tidy profit for the increasingly removed governors.

Popular on Variety

Despite brief bursts of critical commentary from disgruntled co-founder John Law (who didn’t appreciate the changes), “Spark” largely skirts these issues and instead acknowledges the ongoing “How big is too big for Burning Man?” debate by focusing on the “ticket crisis” of 2012. Cameras capture Burning Man staffers in a panic and lamenting nasty Internet commenters (join the club) when an unexpected rush on online sales leaves scores of veteran burners without tickets. It’s a legitimate concern because many of the die-hards are responsible for the “theme camps” and art projects that make up the largely attendee-provided infrastructure. And yet, just when things begin to get dramatic, the simple solution (reserve blocks of tickets for theme camps) is glossed over as another inevitable victory in Burning Man’s march toward world domination.

Not striking much narrative gold within the Burning Man organization, Brown and Deeter expand their survey to include three artists working on projects for the 2012 gathering. Welder Katy Boynton aims to debut a 12-foot tall sculpture that’s literally an open heart for burners to lounge inside. Gulf War Marine veteran Otto von Danger constructs a faux city block of banks for “Burn Wall Street,” which he’ll symbolically set ablaze in the desert. And flamboyant former Wall Streeter Jon La Grace prepares his annual “Play)A(Skool” theme camp, essentially a mini-rave. While Boynton is sweetly earnest and La Grace and especially von Danger are colorful characters, their straightforward stories aren’t particularly compelling.

Mercifully, “Spark” eventually gets to Burning Man itself for the third act, and the filmmakers’ passion finds a worthy outlet. Fast-paced montages set to a variety of electronic music deliver the expected sensory overload and successfully convey a sense of the event’s scope, aided immeasurably by a significant amount of aerial photography.

Yet more time spent on the ground, and with the attendees, would have been ideal, especially since this may be as close as many viewers get to joining in. Instead, “Spark” remains a lovingly made and shot tease, designed to ensure that what really happens at Burning Man stays at Burning Man.

Film Review: 'Spark: A Burning Man Story'

Reviewed at Aidikoff screening room, Beverly Hills, Aug. 6, 2013. (In SXSW Film Festival.) Running time: 90 MIN.


A Paladin and FilmBuff release of a Spark Pictures production. Produced by Steve Brown, Jessie Deeter. Executive producers, Alec Lorimore, Chris Weitz, David Chang, Konstantin Othmer, DaRobert Zangillo.


Directed by Steve Brown, Jessie Deeter. Camera (color, HD), John Behrens; editor, Andrew Gersh; music, Joachim Cooder; music supervisor, Amine Ramer; sound, James Lebrecht; associate producer, Theresa Desautels.


Larry Harvey, Katy Boynton, Jon La Grace, Otto von Danger, Michael Mikel, John Law.

More Film

  • Father

    'Father': Film Review

    “Father” begins with a mother. Dragging her two sullen, uncomprehending kids along with her, Biljana (Nada Šargin) strides onto the grounds of the factory from which her husband was let go more than a year before and harangues the foreman about the severance package they still have not received. The children are hungry, she wails, [...]

  • Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm

    'Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street': Film Review

    In 1985, New Line rushed out a sequel to its breakout horror hit of the prior year. But while commercially successful enough, “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge” was initially disliked by mainstream horror fans, then later won cult status, for the same reason: It struck many as “the gayest horror film of [...]

  • Leaving Neverland HBO

    HBO Seeks Dismissal of Michael Jackson Estate's Suit Over 'Leaving Neverland'

    HBO urged an appeals court on Friday to throw out litigation brought by the Michael Jackson estate over the 2019 documentary “Leaving Neverland.” HBO and the Jackson estate have been locked in a legal war ever since the premium cable network agreed to run the documentary, which chronicles child sexual abuse allegations against Jackson. The [...]

  • Denzel Washington

    Film News Roundup: Denzel Washington-Rami Malek Thriller Set for Early 2021 Release

    In today’s film news roundup, a Denzel Washington-Rami Malek thriller gets a release date, “Escape Room 2” gets moved, Paramount sets a double feature, “So Cold the River” wraps and the Sonoma Film Festival unveils its lineup. RELEASE DATES Warner Bros. has set the Denzel Washington-Rami Malek police thriller “The Little Things” for a Jan. 29, [...]

  • WGA Agents Contract Tug of War

    Writers Guild Says It Helped Negotiate 100 Deals for Agent-Less Members

    The Writers Guild of America has asserted that it has assisted in negotiating more than 100 deals in recent months for members without agents. The missive from the WGA West board of directors comes nearly a year after the guild leaders ordered their 15,000 members to fire their agents if the agents had not agreed [...]

  • the jesus rolls

    Émilie Simon Contributes Flamenco/Gypsy Vibe to John Turturro's ‘The Jesus Rolls’

    For French musician Émilie Simon, the flamenco-meets-gypsy vibe writer-director John Turturro was seeking for the soundtrack to his movie “The Jesus Rolls” turned out to be in her musical and genetical DNA. “This music originally comes from where I grew up in the south of France,” says the 41-year-old electronic musician, who has released five [...]

  • My Hero Academia Heroes Rising

    'My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising' ADR Director on Adapting the Anime for a U.S. Audience

    “My Hero Academia” has officially Detroit Smashed into North American theaters. Sony Pictures Television’s Funimation released “Heroes Rising” in the U.S. on Wednesday, grossing $2.5 million on its opening day. Theaters are showing the film, a standalone entry in the popular superhero anime based on the manga, with options for either subtitles or with an [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content