We know how self-congratulatory a documentary on the All Tomorrow's Parties festival is going to be if the first director credit goes to “All Tomorrow's People.” And yet, in a film made exclusively by the youth and for the youth, the group unity is as prevalent in that credit as the boasting. Throughout 82 extremely up-close-and-personal rock ’n’ roll minutes, All Tomorrow's Parties dares us to hate the eclectic lineups, the sight of rock stars at their most personable, the “peace, love and understanding” ethic imbued with raw irony that this festival — launched in 1999 in the UK by indie rock enthusiast Barry Hogan — encompasses.
But the glimpses into this hipper-than-thou universe are consistently irresistible: frenetic noise rock duo Lightning Bolt captured from drummer/screamer Brian Chippendale's point of view, as a die-hard fan pleads a request; comedian David Cross, booed for trashing Jesus by a 6'6", flamboyant Japanese concert-goer known as Capeman and then confronting him later on hand-held camera; a first-hand account of what it's like to arrive 20 minutes late to the strobe-lit, earplugs-required, three-guitar attack of a Mogwai set, desperately trying to feel the madness the transfixed crowd is already embodying. It's an indie rock circus with all the dangerous stunts but none of the barriers, displayed in a setting as intimate as your grandmother's beach house. Thankfully, co-director Jonathan Caouette employs the enthusiastic techniques necessary to adapt its bombast to the screen.
Most of the film's footage is situated at the Camber Sands beach holiday camp in East Sussex, though the festival has also been held at various sites in Europe and the US since 2002 and, as of 2008, at Kutshers Country Club hotel in The Catskills, New York. Acts range wildly, from the jungle pummeling of New York's Battles to the dopey folk of Daniel Johnston, a lisping, grey-haired shaggy dog who is seen here performing on stage, on a lawn, and in his hotel room, window-shade raised, to the delight of gazing onlookers.
But no matter how diverse the lineup, three trends have become dominant through the years: several old-school, often reunited indie rock legends — from Slint to Shellac to Built to Spill — are called upon to play a favored album in its entirety (in a series called "Don't Look Back"); bands hailed not only for their musicianship but for their live show's sonic intensity, like My Bloody Valentine and The Dirty Three, are selected to “curate” the official year's schedule; and corporate logos are nowhere to be found. Indeed, the film's greatest marvel is that we can't call these neo-hippies and anti-conformists hypocrites if the whole shindig isn't sponsored by a Coca-Cola or a Budweiser.
Everything feels authentic, except for the few times the film's tactics become borderline obnoxious. The before-and-after split-screen shots of Sonic Youth fretting over guitar tunings backstage, then pulverizing a crowd some 10 minutes later, are hypnotic, but there are far too many needless, would-be poetic close-ups of birds flying and suns setting. Further, ATP opens with 1960s footage of the nerdy country club squares and elderly visiting Camber Sands to relax and play tennis, as opposed to the uber-cool rocker kids of today making ironic, drunken use of the camp. But the joke fails not only because of its mockery, but because kids today dress so retro we can hardly tell the difference. Mostly, though, the film's self-flattery, its unapologetic middle finger to the authorities, and the clueless alike are endearing. The biggest laugh comes from the Balkan folk outfit A Hawk and a Hacksaw gracing an on-site casino with an impromptu jamboree, while a security guard tries in vain to thwart them.
Wisely, Caouette and crew withhold such basic information as the act/title of given performances until the end of the song, as if to say, you should already be able to identify Belle and Sebastian, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Explosions in the Sky (for the latter band, only a female dancer's bicep is shown for the first full minute of its shrieking electronica extravaganza). We might pride ourselves for recognizing Nick Cave from the grey vest, trimmed mustache, and acerbic bellow of “I got the no pussy blues!” but the the filmmakers assure us at the end of the song that, no, it's not Nick Cave. It's his side project, Grinderman.