The indie scene is fun, but it isn’t radical

A new documentary about the music festival All Tomorrow’s Parties tries far too hard to stand up to ‘the man’.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

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The concert film is often mourned as a lost art form. Truth be told, it never was an art form in the first place. While many cast a nostalgic eye over Woodstock or The Concert for Bangladesh, the concert film remains a largely commercial and tediously predictable format.

In an attempt to combat such flaws, filmmakers have in recent years shifted their focus to capturing the live music experience from the audience’s perspective, and awkwardly weaving greater socio-political meaning into their films. All Tomorrow’s Parties is a product of this shift in style. It documents 10 years of the eponymous English festival, utilising an inspired multitude of film formats in order to recreate the spirit of this unique seaside event. However, the rebellious anti-establishment message which underlies the documentary is pure aspiration.

The ATP story began in 1999 when Barry Hogan founded the festival as an indie alternative to the likes of Glastonbury and Reading festivals. Using holiday camps at Camber Sands in East Sussex and Minehead in Somerset, the festival plays host to an eclectic mix of alternative acts. As opposed to being dictated by the charts, the line-up is chosen by one artist or group. The film extends this ‘mixtape’ concept through blending 10 years of performances into one freeform piece. For a relatively underground festival, All Tomorrow’s Parties has enough heritage, variety and uniqueness to be an excellent subject for a concert film, and in its early stages this is taken full advantage of.

Other than some brief history of the festival courtesy of old news reports and crowd testimonies, director Jonathan Caouette presents images of performers and the beer-slurred words of punters as embodiments of the festival’s unique atmosphere, and the film excels at perfectly portraying the concert experience. While the use of handheld and even mobile-phone cameras is a familiar sight in the modern concert film, the way in which subject, tone and style constantly shift in All Tomorrow’s Parties is an ingenious, if occasionally jarring, style choice. In the same way that one’s own attention at a show meanders from the performer to the bar to the creepy bloke who seems to being enjoying himself just a little too much, the band and the crowd seem in constant battle for focus, a conflict which magnificently recreates the subjective atmosphere of live music.

At one point in the film, the event is described as ‘an indie festival with a difference’, and while that particular phrase should be met with a degree of scepticism, the line-up alone proves that All Tomorrow’s Parties is indeed rooted in the alternative. Ranging from the likes of noise rockers Sonic Youth to hip-hop legend GZA, the performers are remarkably diverse for a ‘studenty’ festival, and the inclusion of the bands’ own candid footage provides another dimension to the film’s structure.

However, although in the first half hour of the documentary the varied styles and sources of footage seem inexhaustible, a set pattern does soon emerge. The running time falls just short of the 90-minute mark, yet the constant repetition of structure makes ATP feel like a short trying desperately to be a feature.

For much of its running time All Tomorrow’s Parties lures you into thinking it’s a deliciously unabashed romp through festival life and the debauched antics involved, but inevitably greater meaning rears its pretentious head. The message, as it turns out, is that we as young musos should band together and reclaim youth culture from the jaws of the corporate world. It’s a viable, if somewhat predictable, statement, but for some reason the film proceeds to undermine its own argument. Throughout, stock footage of the cavorting middle classes in 1960s holiday camps is interspersed with images of the ATP attendees, presumably to create contrast between the uniform holidaymaking masses and the befringed musical revolutionaries. In truth, this juxtaposition only reveals similarities between the two groups. Sonic Youth frontman Thurston Moore sums up this doomed maxim perfectly when, at one point, he asks a group of twentysomethings if they felt youth culture needed to be reclaimed from ‘the man’. Needless to say their blank faces and nervous laughter speak volumes.

All Tomorrow’s Parties both suffers and benefits from being a typical, modern example of the concert film. Stylistically it embodies all that has reinvigorated the medium, yet its ethos devalues all that it achieves. Not only does it highly overestimate the festival’s role in resuscitating the spirit of live music, but it doesn’t seem to understand the generation it portrays; youth culture doesn’t need to be saved from commercialism, it is commercialism. Nowadays, you can buy Ramones T-shirts in Topman and Iggy Pop appears in insurance ads. Rock’n’roll can’t save us – and neither can this film.

Tom Slater is a graduate of the Young Journalists’ Academy. He blogs at Red Face Review.

The UK Live/Theatrical tour of All Tomorrow’s Parties, featuring performances with Les Savy, starts on 23 October. The film is released on DVD on 2 November. There is more information here.

Watch the trailer for All Tomorrow’s Parties:

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