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‘Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert’ Filmmakers Hope Documentary Is a ‘Vicarious Experience’ on Festival’s Woulda-Been Weekend

The YouTube Originals documentary includes interviews with artists from Moby to Billie Eilish and footage from historic performances by Prince, Dr. Dre and Beyoncé.

Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, 2017, Palm Springs
Billy Farrell/BFA/REX/Shutterstock

“I wanted the film to provide kind of a vicarious experience,” says Chris Perkel, director and producer of the documentary “Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert,” confirming that there’s absolutely nothing coincidental about the film’s debut today coinciding with what would have been day one of Coachella 2020.

“We obviously debated what to do with the release of the film once the festival was rescheduled for October,” he says, but ultimately YouTube Originals decided to only move the release date back a week and a half, from March 31 to April 10, with the idea that the doc could serve as a salve on a weekend when passholders may be particularly nursing the postponement blues. “With all of us staying indoors, and under a lot of stress, we thought that might be more valuable than ever,” Perkel says.

It’s technically 19 years in the desert outside of Palm Springs, as longtime devotees may recall. The inaugural event was held in October of 1999 and, at the time, the festival’s future looked bleak. (“It seemed like a remarkable idea, but I didn’t expect it to actually work,” Moby says in the film.) “It lost a s—ton of money, so there was no way to do it again in 2000,” says the documentary’s executive producer, Raymond Leon Roker, who is also head of AEG Studios for the entertainment and sports company’s global partnerships division.

(Coachella’s second edition wasn’t staged until 2001, but its roots reach back to the ’80s — specifically, the Long Beach punk shows put on by Goldenvoice founder/former drug dealer Gary Tovar, who joined forces with the festival’s future creator, Paul Tollett, then a promoter of ska shows at pizza joints in Pomona.)

Perkel had his work cut out for him, sifting through over 1,000 terabytes of media collected from nearly 2,500 performances over the past two decades. “That’s a unit of measure I’d never heard before this project,” he admits. “We’re talking well over a dozen Pegasus drives at Goldenvoice as well as an offsite warehouse of footage containing line cuts, isolated camera angles, ENG shooters, drone teams, on-site interviews, backstage interviews and multi-track audio not to mention what our documentary team shot specifically for the project over a period of six years. I’ve worked on ‘Pearl Jam 20,’ which had over 2,000 hours of footage, and ‘Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives,’ which had material spanning over 50 years of history, and this project dwarfs them both.”

Beyoncé bookends the doc with Prince, but the first artist to speak about the festival is Billie Eilish. “Everybody knows what Coachella is,” the 19-year-old pop star says in the film — “even if you don’t care about music, you know.” And even if you weren’t born before it started.

The other challenge? Clearing the over 60 music cues in the 104-minute film. “I can’t think of another example that features this array of music from artists of this stature — and a lot of footage was really complicated to clear,” says Perkel. “Early in the process we were like, ‘In order to do this right and to really capture the history, we’ll need Dre, we’ll need Daft Punk, we’ll need Beyoncé.’” There was some internal skepticism about the likelihood of getting all those permissions, but “lo and behold,” he says with a still-relieved sigh.

The likelihood of securing approval from main-stage headliners decreased in proximity to the approaching deadline. Perkel describes the resulting panic that ensued as a “Herculean effort by a lot of people,” including music supervisor Jake Terrell. “In the end, Paul [Tollett] had to directly engage with his actual relationships. We got everything that we wanted, but it came down to the wire.”

“How about this?” suggests Roker. “They eventually all said yes.” Or their estate managers did. The holdouts happened to be deceased Coachella performers, including Prince, Tupac Shakur and Amy Winehouse. “Her family were definitely part of the conversation,” responds Roker when asked if Winehouse’s father held up negotiations. “At the end of the day it wasn’t going to be just paperwork and the normal sort of process. It came down to a conversation and we screened the project for a lot of people. There was probably a notion that we’re just going to put a greatest hits [reel] together and patch together a bunch of performances. But as people watched it, they started to appreciate that we were trying to tell a cultural essay through the film and have a historical document that will stand the test of time.”

“The documentary chronicles the evolution of Coachella,” says Perkel, noting that it was originally considered the ultimate indie rock event where over-the-hill acts like the Pixies reunited but later enabled DJ culture and arguably birthed EDM, eventually morphing into a platform for global pop stars such as Madonna and Ariana Grande as well as hip-hop heavyweights. “It reflects real change in the culture both musically and at large — and that’s the real value of it all,” says Perkel.

“Frankly, when you’re taking on a project as special to people as a Coachella, you don’t want to get it wrong,” says Roker.

The same could be said for an icon like Tupac Shakur, whose spectral image joined Dr. Dre on the main stage thanks to the wonders of technology, shouting, from beyond the grave, “What the f— is up, Coachella?” “Tupac remains an artist that transcends hardcore fans to people that are fascinated by the lore of Tupac, and they all tuned into that moment,” recalls Roker. “It was broadcast out when live-streaming was reaching its first critical mass in 2012 — all those things aligned.”

“I look back on it now and I’m like, that was such a ballsy decision by Dre,” says Perkel, noting the comparatively low-budget image of Whitney Houston that was projected in concert venues across Europe. “Take the Whitney hologram — there were many more ways for that to go wrong than right. And to do it on that stage with that platform and to pull it off is really, really remarkable.”

“I don’t think that performance got enough credit for being so complex in terms of what it inspired emotionally,” says Roker. “That was the moment when the festival became a pop culture component — it simply turned the corner and never turned back. That took it from the core fan base to your parents and ‘Jeopardy’ and everybody else knowing what Coachella means. But again, even though that was not Tupac on stage, what it represented was yet another legendary performance — and not by accident. Above everything else, it really comes down to the curation.”

Pre-Grammy performances from both Eilish and Lizzo notwithstanding, Amy Winehouse remains the best proof that Tollett still has his finger on the pulse after all these years. “It’s beautiful footage, super-intimate,” Perkel says of the late singer’s “Valerie” performance, which was preceded by a random meet-and-greet with Danny DeVito. And while critics complained about the lack of female headliners this year, Roker argues that Coachella is more inclusive than ever. “You have artists of color taking those headliner slots at arguably the biggest festival in the world, including Zack de la Rocha, Frank [Ocean] and Travis [Scott],” he says. “That’s an under-celebrated part of what we achieved.”

“If we’re talking about the movement toward diversity and representation, the fact that what was once perceived to be a predominantly rock festival with a DJ presence could become the chosen platform for a political statement like the one Beyoncé made is evidence of real growth,” says Perkel. Her show in 2018 “became the biggest performance in the festival history — a black woman doing hip-hop and pop music.”

Which begs the question: How can you top Beychella? “After that, we were very curious, like: ‘OK, what’s next?’” says Perkel. “It soon became apparent that the doors were open — all of a sudden you had K-pop and Afrobeat and J Balvin and Bad Bunny not only doing reggaeton but also performing in Spanish. It felt like the festival had exploded into a staging ground for the widest possible music.”

“What a difference the last few years have made,” adds Roker, who acknowledges the “tokenism” of the past. “Not purposefully, but by just default, in the early days of Coachella it felt like we could point to the one Latin music artist or band from Mexico. Now there are entire movements showing up for the festival.”