All Tomorrow’s Parties The Film Reviewed: The Triumph Of The Fans

All Tomorrow's Parties is a innovative documentary culled from found-fan-footage featuring great performances, but Robert Barry asks if it faithfully capture the spirit of the festival we all love

From 2000 to 2004, I went to every single All Tomorrow’s Parties festival held in this country. After attending three festivals in 2004 — the two "director’s cut" weekends in the spring plus the Chapman Brothers-curated Nightmare Before Christmas — and finally vomiting outside the Queen Victoria pub on the last night, I didn’t go again. Maybe that year had felt rather like ATP overload, maybe I just couldn’t get quite so excited about the curators anymore (I mean, come on, Vincent Gallo? The Mars Volta? Whatever . . .), maybe the nature of my own professional life was making it harder and harder to book weekends off to go to festivals, or maybe I was just too lazy to go all the way out west to Minehead. Either way, the dream, it seemed, was over.

By the end of the 90s I had pretty well sworn off UK festivals. I’d been to V and I’d been to Reading and I’d been to the Essential Festival in Brighton and I’d pretty well hated them all. But All Tomorrow’s Parties promised to be something different. No camping for a start — this earned a big thumbs up from me — and a line-up that hadn’t been block-booked by a shadowy cabal of anonymous promoters and booking agents, but specially curated by a single band, and a band that I liked and respected at that. The rule of thumb of festival going had been overturned — at Reading or V I could safely assume that 90% of the bands I hadn’t heard of would be rubbish; at ATP the opposite was true. It was a matter of trust. I trusted Mogwai, and Tortoise, and Autechre to pick an interesting line-up, and to chose performers who, if I wasn’t already familiar with them, well, I jolly well should be. So, my ears were opened to Wolf Eyes and Pita, OOIOO and the Threnody Ensemble, Bernard Parmegiani and Yasunao Tone — strange and wonderful sounds I might otherwise have never come across.

Unfortunately, this is not really the festival represented in All Tomorrow’s Parties — The Film. Of course, ten years ago, Barry Hogan and others at Foundation probably never had an inkling that the festival would still be going strong a decade later, it may not have occured to them that ATP would become as much a part of the UK’s music festival culture as any other; nor that, in the days when the Reading Festival was still the Reading Festival and not yet the Carling Weekender and things like the O2 Wireless Festival and the Ben and Jerry’s Festival were but a twinkle in the PR man’s eye, one day a festival without a major corporate sponsor might seem rather odd, unique even.

As a result, most of the footage comes from the last five years — the post-YouTube, post-camera phone years in which no-one really believes they’ve experienced anything until they’ve posted their home video of it on Facebook — and so it’s scarcely recognisable to me as the festival I once loved so much. In fact, if there is a problem with this film, it’s that it ends up making the festival seem, well, like any other festival: here are the big indie crossover acts (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Portishead), there are the 70’s rock heritage bands (The Stooges, Patti Smith); throw in a token reggae act (Jah Shaka) and a token hip hop act (GZA) and it could be the line-up to any festival anywhere in the world from any time in the last five years. I don’t care if Slint miss me (I certainly never missed them),;I don’t care if Nick Cave isn’t getting any "pussy"; and I don’t care a hoot for any band that have been curated by Explosions in the Sky. What happened to all the weird stuff?

One of the most grating scenes in the film occurs about half way through. For what seems like forever, Warren Ellis (of The Bad Seeds and The Dirty Three) and Dave Pajo (of Slint and Papa M), stand around outside saying, "Oh, hey dude, you were awesome, and did you see that other band? Man, they were really awesome too." Over and over again. This little indie rock circle jerk is only beaten for unintentional comedy value by Thurston Moore’s impression of Butthead doing an impression of Noam Chomsky ("Like, dude, capitalism, like, totally sucks and stuff" etc.) But as with all documentaries about music festivals the most annoying people are always the punters — the pilled-up idiot playing an acoustic guitar, the guys who think they’re just so wacky and crazy that they just have to tell everyone about it, the dreadful bongo-driven "fan band" in a chalet. It could almost be Bestival. But if the film’s greatest weakness is the fans, then they are also its greatest strength.

For a film almost entirely composed of amateur footage, sent in by festival-goers, this is undoubtedly one of the best looking, best sounding rock documentaries I’ve seen for a very long time. The shots are frequently gorgeous, and the editing is spot on, with great use of split screens and archive footage from the heyday of the holiday camps as holiday camps. It is of course perfectly fitting that a film about a festival that has, from time to time, turned over curatorial duties to "the fans" should turn out to be a triumph of crowd-sourcing, and this is, in many ways, a wonderful, if at times a little self-congratulatory, tribute to a great festival. It just isn’t about the festival I loved, nor does it really make me want to go back.

All Tomorrow’s Parties – The Film will be screened at this weekend’s Branchage International Film Festival and will tour the UK alongside Les Savy Fav and others playing live in October:

Thu Oct 15 – Hull, Adelphi (with Gravenhurst)

Fri Oct 23 – Manchester Deaf Institute (with Les Savy Fav)

Sat Oct 24 – Glasgow ABC 2 (with Les Savy Fav)

_Sat Oct 24 – Brighton Duke of York (midnight show as part of ‘White Nights’, with live bands tbc)

Mon Oct 26 – London Forum (with Les Savy Fav)

Tue Oct 27 – Leeds TJ’s Woodhouse Club (with Les Savy Fav)

Wed Oct 28 – Bristol Watershed (with Team Brick)

The DVD will be released on 2 November.

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