Th!nkFilm // 2007 // 138 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // July 5th, 2007
The mud. The music. The madness.
Part concert film, part historical documentary on one of the seminal music festivals in the world, Glastonbury is the biggest collection of dirty hippies on your lawn you will ever see.
Damn hippies. Get off my lawn! Bunch of long-haired freaks...
A surreal blend of Woodstock, Cirque du Soleil, an all-night rave, and a week-long acid trip, the Glasonbury Festival is the largest outdoor festival of music and arts in the world, as well as one of the oldest. Founded by dairy farmer turned festival organizer Michael Eavis in 1970, inspired by free expression, hippie culture, and outdoor concerts like Woodstock and the Isle of Wight Festival, Glastonbury has transformed over the decades from its humble roots into a British musical behemoth, with hundreds of bands and hundreds of thousands of attendees each year.
Conceived to create a permanent record of the festival's 35-year history, Glastonbury chronicles both the history of the festival from its early days of counter-culture, free-spirited rebellion, and gypsy travelers into its current incarnation as a massive million-dollar mega-festival spread over nearly four kilometers. Composed of footage spanning the entire festival timeline, Glastonbury puts us in the mud, the dirt, the sprawling sea of unwashed bodies and naked dancing hippies, the drugs and alcohol, and the occasional police riot.
Shot between 2002 and 2005 with thousands of hours of amateur video contributions, this two-disc DVD features live performances from Coldplay, Radiohead, Oasis, Paul McCartney, David Bowie, REM, The White Stripes, Foo Fighters, The Killers, Massive Attack, Blur, and more.
Trying to create a single film that does the Glastonbury Festival justice is a near-impossible task. The festival is so large, so wild and out of control, so utterly unrestrained and massive that all previous attempts to chronicle the mania on film have violently self-destructed. So who better to capture the anarchy of Glastonbury than the director who made his name capturing the Sex Pistols tear a hole in the music industry? Director Julian Temple, of The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle and The Filth and the Fury fame brings the same energy and uncompromising vision to Glastonbury, attempting to tell a tale about the festival as if it were a living, breathing organism, capturing it from all angles, both glamorous and ugly, pristine and utterly filth-ridden. The experience is somewhat intoxicating; a two-hour kaleidoscopic assault of mud, music, mayhem, and more substance abuse than you can handle.
Unstructured and free-flowing, at times Glastonbury feels like three or four films randomly edited together into a gigantic two-hour cacophony. Believe it or not, this is surprisingly accurate, considering the film's roots. Temple originally agreed to film the festival in 2002, as rumors swirled that Glastonbury might shut its gates forever due to increasing logistical problems and modernization. However, the festival rolled on, so Temple came back in 2003, 2004, and 2005, shooting more and more film. Add to this footage hundreds of hours of fan-submitted material stretching back to the 1970s, edit it down to a smart two-hour running time, and you have Glastonbury The diversity of the musical acts and festival goers captured reflects the film's chronological depth.
Glastonbury is a full-out assault on the senses -- dancing, shouting, screaming, blaring music, with the largest collection of drunken louts, free spirits, unwashed bodies, hardcore bangers, jesters, wizards, college students, gypsies, and ravers ever assembled in one place. The film focuses on the attendees more than the performers themselves, weaving in between tents and unwashed bodies, focusing on the glassy stares and drunken stumbles of fans throbbing and pulsating in the mud. The experience is rather unstructured and incoherent -- quite like Glastonbury itself -- but certainly captures the experience of Glastonbury as a nonstop barrage of music, substance abuse, and spiritual exploration. There is little in the way of narration beyond the conversations with festival creator and organizer Michael Eavis; the camera and microphones simply go wandering, capture all the ambient conversations, laughter, hollering, ecstasy, and chaos of the crowds well enough to tell a cohe! sive story. Well, as cohesive as possible, under the circumstances.
Much time is spent establishing the roots of the festival as a collection of free spirits, vagabonds, gypsy travelers, and pagans collected to dance and sing and do smashing amounts of drugs together, much to the ire of the local constabulary and the sleepy English countryside village below. As the film progresses, we begin to get a sense of the slow (but arguably inevitable) transformation of the festival from the free-spirited chaos of the 1960s into a more reasonable, structured festival capable of dealing with the crushing crowds and chaos. Temple is keen on illustrating the internal struggle of the festival organizers and participants resolving the inherent irony of Glastonbury in the 21st century, a festival rooted in disorganization, peace and love, and free expressionism threatening to collapse on itself under its own massive popularity and constant pressure from police and government to "straighten" up.
As a film, Glastonbury clearly expresses fondness for the carefree days of yesteryear, with most of its footage dedicated to dancing gypsies and travelers, but does not shy away from the challenges and concerns of the modern day. The slow, shambolic, zombie-like inevitable shuffle of the Glastonbury Festival towards increased organization, corporate sponsorship, sanitation, safety, and law obeying may lead to a "sanitized caricature" of the Glastonbury festival, but how else can you deal with thousands of pounds of human feces, tens of thousands of gate crashers literally tearing a hole in the perimeter walls, rampant drug use, and constant police threats to revoke the festival's permits? My favorite scene is the spotlight on the septic crew, responsible for cleaning the numerous portable potties. Now there's a side to Glastonbury fans don't usually get to see.
Presented in a two-disc set, Glastonbury has an underwhelming transfer, cobbled together from various film stocks and hundreds of hours of amateur video shot by festival-goers. This gives the film an amazing amount of footage to draw from, but makes the entire presentation quite erratic. I can certainly understand the sketchy appearance of vintage reels and old material included in the film, but much of the newly recorded footage looks nearly as bad. Most of the live performances are expertly captured with great detail, sharp black levels, and good contrast, but others look like absolute crap. Color saturation and grain levels spin wildly like a top between each scene. Like the festival itself, Glastonbury has its ups and downs on DVD.
One interesting point to note: the packaging states the film is presented in 16:9 full screen (letterbox) but clearly failed to consult on this point with the DVD itself, which is quite happy to present Glastonbury in 1.78:1 anamorphic, thank you very much. Normally, product printing errors like this are irksome, but in this case, we're getting more correct aspect ratio bang for the buck, so I shan't complain!
Audio performance is much nicer, with the choice of a 5.1 surround or 2.0 stereo tracks. The surround is overall the best choice, with stronger bass response, decent rear channel use and capturing the environmental chaos quite well. The 2.0 track is mild in comparison, sounding tinny and weak. Dialogue in both channels can be hit-or-miss, depending on the footage and location recorded.
Included on the first disc along with the feature is a commentary track with director Julien Temple and Brit-pop band Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker (of all people) discussing the creation of Glastonbury and shared experiences from the festival itself. On the second disc, we get a series of uncut musical performances -- hooray! -- from the Foo Fighters, Paul McCartney, The White Stripes, The Killers, Goldfrapp, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Radiohead, REM, and the Fun Lovin' Criminals. The performances look and sound great (only a stereo presentation here, alas) but are only the tip of the musical iceberg -- a lot of performances shown briefly in Glastonbury clearly did not make the cut here, which is a shame. In addition, we also get interviews with both festival attendants and performing artists, including James Brown, Coldplay, Oasis' Noel Gallagher, The Dandy Warhols, Moby, Radio One DJ John Peel, and festival founder Michael Eavis. Decent stuff here, but mostly just! deleted scenes that didn't make the theatrical cut. Two small featurettes, "Freeing the Spirit: Glastonbury 1999" and "Glastonbury Ceremony," chronicle some of the more free-spirited moments of Glastonbury, rounded off with a theatrical trailer and film previews. All things considered, this two-disc set dishes up a satisfying amount of supplementary material.
The schizophrenic nature of the Glastonbury festival leads to an expected amount of cinematic inconsistency in capturing the cumulative effect, and here is where Glastonbury derails somewhat. The film spends far too much time focusing on the freaks, geeks, free spirits, and thoroughly un-sober folk that populate the festival, and not nearly enough time focusing on the musical acts, which will arguably be the biggest draw for DVD sales. To headline on the DVD packaging a performance from David Bowie and then only give us 90 seconds of a single song interlaced with footage from concert-goers dancing during the film itself is a rip, pure and simple.
As a concert DVD, Glastonbury kind of sucks. We only get a minute here and there of a particular artist or group performing for every ten minutes of footage of stoned hippies playing hackie-sack. The uncut performances included on the second disc help ease the pain, but are in of themselves a frustratingly incomplete offering. Why are we being given an uncut performance from the one-hit-wonders Fun Lovin' Criminals, but not from Bjork, David Bowie, Joe Strummer, Morrissey, or any of the dozens of other notable musical acts featured in this DVD? It's robbery, I tells ya!
Hopefully after reading this review, you will understand Glastonbury as film about the festival itself, not a concert DVD. It is a tribute and history to a three- decade music festival, eccentric whimsy and all. Unfortunately, one could easily mistake it for a concert performance DVD chock full of uncut musical performances -- which it isn't. This fact would be obscured to the casual observer examining the packaging, proudly festooning all manner of famous musical acts across the cover, acts that only appear in the film for seconds at a time. Make sure you know what you're looking for before picking up Glastonbury.
Glastonbury is a frenzied and furious experience, but a fitting tribute to a musical festival phenomenon that has survived the passing of time and changing of society into the 21st century. The Glastonbury Festival of today may not resemble its wandering, hippie roots, but Glastonbury perfectly captures the past and present with equal respect and reverence.
Music lovers will no doubt appreciate the history and amazing talent that has crossed the many stages over the last three decades, but may be frustrated by the lack of complete musical performances included on this DVD. Fortunately, the film itself is passionate and compelling enough to make up for its shortcomings. Anyone fortunate enough to have attended the festival will no doubt find Glastonbury welcoming nostalgia. For all us suckers stuck overseas, this film may be the closest we ever come to the real thing.
Really, it's pretty darn close. After the credits roll, you can almost taste the sod and mud in your mouth.
A wild ride. Not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2007 Adam Arseneau; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 138 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Filmmaker Commentary with Director Julien Temple and Jarvis Cocker
* Uncut Performances from: Foo Fighters, Paul McCartney, The White Stripes, and More
* Additional Interviews
* Festival Goers Interviews
* "Freeing the Spirit: Glastonbury 1999" Featurette
* "Glastonbury Ceremony" Featurette
* Theatrical Trailers
* Glastonbury Festival Official Site