SXSW Review: 'All Tomorrow's Parties'
There was a time in my life when live music was really important to me, an essential part of my regular entertainment diet. If I liked a band, I felt like I had to see them play every time I could, and there were certain bands I even followed from city to city on certain tours. Film was always my first love, but live music ran a close second.
At some point, that changed. And it changed completely. It just turned. I didn't feel that same manic urge anymore. I can't even tell you why it happened. It just did. I'll occasionally go see a show now, but it's more of a special occasion, and sometimes, I'll look around during a show and see a look on someone's face as they're gripped by that same urgency I used to feel, and I envy them that ability.
That's a big part of what I felt while I was watching "All Tomorrow's Parties," a new documentary about a decade-old music festival in England that's unlike any other music festival I've heard of. More than anything, it reminds me of what the New Beverly's been doing with filmmakers, or the Alamo's classic Quentin Tarantino festivals. At All Tomorrow's Parties, the festival invites a curator, a headliner like Mogwai or Sonic Youth or Explosions In The Sky. The curators then pick enough other bands to fill out an entire weekend's worth of music, like a giant live mix tape, and because it's a differerent curator each time, the personality of the festival is always changing.
[more after the jump]
Jonathan Caouette is listed as the co-director of the film, with "All Tomorrow's Parties" sharing the credit. If you've seen his 2003 film "Tarnation," then you may have some idea of what to expect here. That movie was a collage built from years and years of personal home movies and videos, edited in a way that wasn't about narrative but more about emotional impact. The movie hit me like a wave the first time I saw it... it's like a memory, the way we turn things over in our minds, the way we remember details more than whole events. Our memory doesn't work like a narrative, no matter what Hollywood tells us, and "Tarnation" captured that beautifully. Now "All Tomorrow's Parties" does the same thing, and it works as a sort of group memory, as if you could just dip randomly into that ten year history and let it all wash over you. The film was assembled from some 200 different sources. Mobile phone footage, DV, HD, 8mm film both vintage and recent, all of it blended into a cascade of sound and fury. There are interviews with some of the musicians, as well as a lot of live performance. One of the great things about the movie is that no one is shilling anything. There's no sponsorship at the festival or onscreen. No corporate logos. No t-shirts for sale. And even the venue is almost completely unconventional. It's held each year in an off-season holiday camp, something that's not really part of the experience of growing up in America, but which is evidently part of the fabric of life in the UK. I always remember the song from "Tommy" and its reference to holiday camps, and they use samples from that track as punctuation marks throughout this film, especially when they're showing footage of the camps back in their heyday in the '50s and '60s, packed with families looking for some sun and fun.
I don't often take notes when I'm watching a film, but as this one unfolded, I was afraid I'd forget this image or that moment, since it's such a barrage, and so I tried to take some quick impressionistic notes in the dark. Of course, looking at them now, I'm struck by the notion that I am a crazy person. The notes are so random and half-formed:
"Belle & Sebastian - sounds good - curator?
Warren Ellis and Nick Cave - comedy routine: 'I used to like Nick Cave. Until I joined The Bad Seeds.' 'Quote of the year.'
Grinderman. 'No Pussy Blues.' Riveting.
Minehead. One camp. Camber Sands. Other.
Slint. The Dirty Three. Octopus Project - theremin-based nerd rock. Sweeeeeeet.
Who's the big girl who fronts The Gossip? She's hilarious, and a great soul voice.
Animal Collective sounds so insane live. Should see them.
The Two Gallants. Lovely.
Great intense moment w/ Lightning Bolt. Curated by Mogwai. Fans right on top of them. Wild interactivity.
Hey, look, the highest kid I have ever seen. Does he even have eyes anymore?
Daniel Johnston, sweet and sad as always.
The range of what this movie covers exhausts me. Roscoe Mitchell, old sax player, just does not give a shit. Love it.
Mogwai. Harp and the Hacksaw. Seasick Steve and his white boy blues. So awesome.
David Cross must be used to being heckled by now. It's part of his 'wow, the audience is stupid' thing. 'It's not going well, is it?' Later, finds the guy in the crowd. 'You were dissing the J-man, baby.'
Iggy and the Stooges. Still wanna be my dog."
The highest compliment I can pay the film is that it made me want to attend the festival for real. As a portrait of a scene, and not just your average concert film, "All Tomorrow's Parties" is in a class by itself, and I strongly urge you to see it if you're even remotely interested in the subject matter. It's one of the singular film experiences I've had so far this year.
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