There's a saying that anyone who claims to remember attending Woodstock clearly didn't actually go. You can imagine visitors leaving the "Three Days of Peace and Music" in 1969 recalling only a drawn-out blur of drugs, body hair, pendulous nudity and amplified guitars in the distance.
The documentary Glastonbury leaves a comparable impression of England's famed Glastonbury Festival. Director Julien Temple presents a loving and vivid collage that draws on footage from the festival's 35-year history, from concerned black-and-white TV news accounts to shaky home movies. Temple superbly captures the texture of the event over the years, but it's a shame that Glastonbury offers little else.
Glastonbury emulates the experience of actually attending the event in England's dairy lands. The film begins with the preparations of some scruffy young people, including a chick with blond dreads and a lip ring, who we'll see throughout the film. We see visitors arriving en masse, in clips from both early festivals and recent ones, and the film maintains a "dawn-to-dusk" structure, with some hungover applause saluting one sunrise. It's as if the four days of the festival contain three decades of English rock history and radicalism.
You can practically smell the cannabis in the air while feeling your elbow jostled by the passersby. Temple takes palpable pleasure in recording creativity and incongruity in the costumes. One minute, you'll see a neon space diva, the next a Gandalf-style druid, then life-size garden gnomes hitting the restrooms. A montage of animal-costumed visitors accompanies Björk's performance of "Human Behavior," and despite the singer's trademark hiccupy intensity, she comes across as the most normal personality.
Temple draws an intriguing link to the mysticism in the history of the area, which supposedly contains the last resting place of the Holy Grail. Quotations from William Blake's poem "Jerusalem" and its echoes of "England's green and pleasant land" bookend the film, and when we see a fellow drawing on a huge, horned peace pipe or a woman dancing to Blur, it's easy to see Glastonbury's similarity to an ecstatic pagan rite.
For a documentary about a music festival, the musicians take a baffling backseat. Few performers are interviewed, although the Clash's Joe Strummer (who died in 2002) expresses regret for swinging at the cameras with a mic stand during "Straight to Hell." There's a more charming moment when David Bowie takes the stage and, with genuine excitement, recalls his previous visit to Glastonbury – 30 years earlier – before launching into "Heroes."
The film's roster ranges from folkies such as Melanie to techno-punks such as the Prodigy, and starts out with great promise with the Velvet Underground's haunting, chiming version of "All Tomorrow's Parties," followed, in footage from another year, by Nick Cave doing a snaky rendition of "Red Right Hand." But the film features virtually no song in its entirety, although Pulp's anthemic performance of "Common People" near the end is a rare exception.
The only individual who comes into clear focus is organizer Michael Eavis, whose bald pate, Lincoln beard and steady demeanor seem as much a fixture of the landscape as the surrounding hills. There's an amusing moment when he recalls the early 1980s, when the anti-Thatcher protests were so prevalent that his daughter once asked, "Daddy, are we going to a 'Maggie out!' today?" Glastonbury records the festival's occasional tensions with the community and the police, but only in a kind of shorthand. We hear about Glastonbury's early rivalry with a free festival in Stonehenge, and see frightening film of police attacking trailers at the other event, but the background details of events such as those are nearly incoherent.
Given that Glastonbury runs well past two hours, its stingy attitude toward rock performances, historical facts and insightful anecdotes proves particularly confusing. Temple would seem the ideal filmmaker for the event, having captured the 1950s' youth explosion and racial tensions in his musical, Absolute Beginners, and the social unrest and aesthetic aftershocks of the Sex Pistols with The Filth and the Fury. With Glastonbury, Temple virtually plops you down amid the tents and teepees for the show, but you feel like you're sitting too far away to actually see the headliners.