At a recent Sundance panel discussion of "The Times, Did They A-Change?" rock-docmaker Julien Temple observed that the counterculture has always been basically the same except for the length and shape of its hair. "Old punks are just as bad as old hippies," asserted the director who first took aim at establishment cinema with the Sex Pistols "documentary" The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle in 1980. "Punk culture has been co-opted as well as any other counterculture. This thing goes way back: You can find very accurate descriptions of the Sex Pistols in Chaucer, for example." And even the Clash's Joe Strummer, reminded Temple, started out as a hippie!
Temple's then-is-now-is-then thesis may be questionable, but his film Glastonbury bears it out—to a fault and then some. Spanning 35 years of the world's longest-running music festival and the variously coiffed alternative types who attend it every summer by the tens of thousands, this odd anti-doc crosscuts its stubbornly undated footage of fans and bands with such willful disregard for storytelling that the end result is like one big, acid-tinged blur. Maybe the style befits the subject. Surely anyone who tripped his way through a weekend or two at the British Woodstock, an epic pop-rock bacchanalia held on 900 acres of farmland, would recognize the film as a flashback in the lysergic sense. Are you experienced? Veteran war filmmaker Sam Fuller famously argued that combat could only be replicated in a movie theater with live rounds being fired over the audience. In those terms, the ideal presentation of Glastonbury would include a free LSD tab with ticket purchase and globs of mud caked on the viewer midway through. (A Guardian reviewer suggested "Smell-o-Vision" for the full effect.)
Pretentiously impressionistic, sloppy almost to the point of self-parody, Temple's film is New Journalism without the journalism—or, alas, the drugs. In one characteristic spurt of ill-considered montage, Temple cuts from a swinging Morrissey in full-on Elvis-in-Vegas mode to a hippie toddler blowing soap bubbles, a Christ-like proselytizer lugging a gigantic cross o'er the Glastonbury plains, and a proud libertine toting a sign that reads "Protest naked." Morrissey's religious effect on a crowd is well known, but are these extraneous images taken from near the time of the performance? From the same year? The same decade? Temple, whose Swindle begins, brilliantly, in the 1780s, inherited some 900 hours of Glastonbury footage, but still wanted more. As the fest's Vale of Avalon site is where Joseph of Arimathea once walked (and where King Arthur may have made his final quest), Glastonbury includes copious shots of weary travelers; some appear to be British actors in public-domain costume dramas. As Pistols impresario Malcolm McLaren would say (using Johnny Rotten as his mouthpiece, natch): Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?
Not quite all of the editing in this 138-minute whopper is so cheeky or incoherent. At one point Temple cuts from Primal Scream growling "Swastika Eyes" (sample lyrics: "Swastika eyes/Swastika eyes/Swastika eyes") to black-and-white security-cam shots of police shaking down a couple of glassy-eyed, fence-scaling festgoers and driving them back outside the gate. Those cops are Nazis, man. The movie also includes brief glimpses of the 1990 Glastonbury melee in which attendees threw Molotov cocktails and trashed the grounds, leading festival godfather Michael Eavis to take the party away for a year, like a scolding parent. There's a story in here somewhere, but Temple refuses to find it or even to look for it. (The film's press kit tellingly touts the mutual admiration of festival director and film director.) After more than 90 minutes of random shots, mostly of strung-out revelers, Glastonbury finally seems to climax with disgusting close-ups of excrement extraction from portable toilets—the Filth and the Fury, to borrow another Temple title. But there's still another half-hour to go before the film concludes that it really has shit to say about its subject.
And where are the bands in all of this? Temple, in what may for him be the ultimate counterculture move, includes not a single interview with the musicians; he even appears reluctant to share his enormous wealth of concert footage at any great length. A ferocious performance by Cypress Hill (with guitars!) runs a full 30 seconds—until Temple wanders up the hill to Stonehenge, seen in archival footage. By default, the concert highlight has Temple's idol, the late Strummer, bashing a BBC camera with his mic stand during "Straight to Hell." Compared to this, David Gray's gentle acoustic pop looks absurdly out of place—and Temple, of course, doesn't bother to explain. Björk gets the most screen time of any performer for her jaunty "Human Behavior," but Temple is restless here, too, looking offstage to people in the crowd acting like animals—just as they did in 1970! After the hundredth shot of a shirtless white guy shaking his dreads to the beat, noticing the camera, and flashing a peace sign, one has the sudden urge to attend a Johnny Mathis show in cufflinks.
Near the end, Eavis recalls hearing people say after a fest that they "survived," agreeing that there's a sense of accomplishment that comes with slogging through the Glastonbury ordeal. In this way, more than any other, Temple's rock-doc hodgepodge is an Experience.