All Tomorrow’s Partiesby Layla Leiman / 14.04.2011
With some trepidation I went to watch the 2009 All Tomorrow’s Parties documentary. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but presumed it would be pleasantlyentertaining and somewhat interesting in a typicallymusic-type documentary way (interesting, but soon repetitively boring).
It opens with a super8 found-footage montage of the English middle class descending on seaside holiday camps en-mass. In grainy washed-out colour they get lost, they bumble, they’re excited, they’re ridiculous. This is all set to the building and pulsating drum intro to The Battle’s “Atlas”. Finally it cuts live to rough, intimate footage of the band performing on the All Tomorrow’s Parties (ATP) stage. What followed was a tapestry of performances that spanned genres and settings. My skepticism vanished, I was grinning and sold to the experience.
All Tomorrow’s Parties is a finely edited bricolage of Super8, camcorder and mobile phone footage compiled by over two hundred fans, musicians and filmmakers spanning ten years of ATP festivals. It plots the history of ATP, with its origins back in the 90s at a boarded-up seaside holiday camp in Camber Sands, England, and the events and performances that have shaped it over the years. The chronology is only roughly hinted at, as the documentary is not so much a narrative, but a kaleidoscopic celebration of musical experience.
What characterises ATP, is the eclectic mix of artists selected to perform, and the organic and ad hoc nature of the actual performances themselves; they seem to spring up wherever people are together, whether that be on a stage, in an arcade, a room, a lawn or the beach.
The documentary pieces together these formal and informal performances into a seamless account that traverses the different ATP festivals. We are taken on a journey, included in the experience. As we watch, we feel the delight and wild fun that is so synonymous with being young and loving music (an ideal which didn’t die with tie-dye in the 60s, but which has been pushed to the side to make way for economic imperatives). Along this path, which uses found footage to guide us, we see Nick Cave intermittently chanting and screeching his way through “No Pussy Blues”, we carry Iggy’s sinewy torso out atop a sea of hands, frolic with Karen O as she’s prancing about in a sequined leotard, punching the air with every chorus line. We revel in Beth Ditto of The Gossip’s cholesterol soaked rolls of vocal funk, and we shiver and think of our youth when Portishead wails through a haunting ghost song off “Third”. We walk along the uninviting English shore at dawn with a small group of sleep-deprived people, following as Grizzly Bear walk and sing “Deep Blue Sea”. We climb up a tree to see over the 50-odd people gathered in a semi-circle around balaclava’d Lightning Bolt as he performs the most intense drum solo humanly possible, whilst around him a close circle of fans mirror his every move on imaginary kits of their own. We raise our hands in the air and sway to the rhythmic rhymes of The Rza. We stand behind a meathead security guard who tries futilely to shut down an impromptu A Hawk & A Hacksaw set in an arcade. (Perhaps it is the incongruence of place to performance – or the other way around – that causes him to want to put a stop to it). But what is important, is that Meathead eventually walks away in exasperation; the band plays on. This trivial interaction is the refrain that runs throughout the documentary and is the key idea of ATP – above all, it’s about the music.
This idea sits at the very heart of what ATP is all about: a music festival curated by musicians (and other artists) for people who love music. It’s not about big names and prestige, nor lighting effects and massive crowds. It’s about the intimate experience, both for the performer and the fan; it’s the essence.
This idea is communicated very clearly in the documentary through the intricate way that the myriad footage is edited together, and then juxtaposed alongside vintage footage and interlaced with artist and fan interviews. It becomes impossible to distinguish performances, as artists and fans mingle seamlessly in what appears to be a completely open space. “There’s a party in 409” someone tells someone else, who knows who could be there. But it looks fucking fun. I most definitely want to be there. Split screens, overlays and raw shots temporarily erodes away the separation of the screen and carries you away with the performances until the very end: Patti Smith singing “Rock ‘n Roll Nigger”. She blesses the festival, calls for consciousness and says she’ll be thinking of us. Yes us, I’d been drawn in that far.
We left, elated, inspired, and idealistically hopeful.