2005Director: Drew Thomas
Cast: Wayne Coyne; Iggy Pop; Conor Oberst; Bjork; Jack and Meg White; Noel Gallagher; the Pixies
he Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival is one of the most obviously documentable subjects within the artistic community, offering a sufficiency of human weirdness in any direction one might be inclined to point a camera—the stages, the tents, the exhibits, the throngs of brittle, asymmetrically haircutted indie kids withering in the unfamiliar sunshine. Coachella, a film by Drew Thomas, played the art-houses earlier this year as the faithful awaited the announcement of the 2006 lineup (Tool? Seriously?). It collects live performances, interviews with artists and comments from random yahoos in the crowd about the transcendent, unifying power of music, and so on.
The more ink a performance received, the more likely it is to be featured here. There's Wayne Coyne in his giant hamster ball; Bright Eyes staring all deer-eyed into the crowd, trying to talk himself off a ledge; Iggy Pop humping inanimate objects; Bjork being all Bjork-y; Belle and Sebastian getting down with their twee selves; the Polyphonic Spree preparing to drink the Kool-Aid; the White Stripes before Jack's creepy Michael Jackson phase. The Pixies' "Where Is My Mind?,” from 2004, is included by necessity, as is Arcade Fire's "Rebellion (Lies)" from last year. Placed nearly side-by-side, toward the end of the film, these performances nicely illustrate the twin functions of Coachella's musical stages—to heap laurels upon old-timers who never got the respect they deserved and to aid in the taste-making process. One Pixies fan claims most of the Coachella lineup wouldn't exist without Black Francis and Pals, a statement with which Kool Keith would probably disagree. But watching the Pixies, still very early in a reunion tour that eventually saw them beat to death the summer-festival circuit, you get the feeling Coachella was made for moments like this. I mean, we all knew that the Pixies deserved to gaze out upon a sea of adoring fans, but, three years ago, would anyone have ever expected it to happen? Coachella was also made for a band like the Arcade Fire, with whom most of rock snobdom was already familiar by that time last year, but was largely unknown to the Hot Topic crowd. Their radiant performance is the best catch-a-rising-star moment here, finding the band crystallizing its energy and perfectly seizing its day in the sun—which must have been brutal under all that funeral garb.
Hard as it is to quibble with a film that offers so much good live footage, several factors prevent Coachella from being a definitive, or even great, documentary. Disproportionate attention is paid to electronic music and to the tents, where it appears most of the serious drugs are consumed. Nothing wrong with a little techno, but the lineups seem a lot more rock-centric than what's featured here. I could be wrong about that. Nobody has the same Coachella, as alums are fond of saying, and some more fan-level material would have helped convey the disconnect of a true festival experience—that simultaneous, paradoxical rush of individual and communal sensation. Why not loan out cameras to a dozen festival-goers? Each would undoubtedly turn in a completely different film. Coachella covers a lot, but it would have benefited from focus. The little time devoted to the crowd is compulsory Journalism 101 stuff. No good stories emerge from the random, thrown-together-at-the-last-minute quotes.
We also don't get a sense of what makes this event tick. Flea is interviewed and speaks warmly of Coachella, pointing to it as an exception to the fact that American audiences have a hard time gathering outdoors for concerts without turning into Neanderthals (and he'd know). Certainly the lack of Limp Bizkit contributes to this, but little is said of the booking, the set-up and the logistics of an event that by most accounts runs quite smoothly for something of its size. A few overhead shots of the stages in relation to the tents, exhibits, and camping/parking areas, etc., would have provided some helpful perspective. The musical performances regrettably are not labeled by year, which would have served to add some historical context.
Interviews with performers are of varying coherence. Coyne is a hoot. Perry Farrell is still an endearing fruitcake. Mos Def is awesome. Noel Gallagher, not so much. The Mars Volta guys, despite abundant circumstantial evidence to the contrary, are pretty level-headed. Filmmaker Thomas unsuccessfully tries to stir up some tension toward the end by juxtaposing comments from Saul Williams with those of Gallagher about the mix of music and politics. Saul's for it. Noel—in case you're wondering, still an asshole—is not.
Otherwise, Coachella offers much of what you'd expect from a documentary on the titular subject. It won't change anyone's perception of the festival, but will provide adequate nostalgia for those who have attended and good enough reason for everyone else to get in on the fun.