All Tomorrow’s Parties
A Fan-Made Concert Film
Warp X

The fundamental premise of the All Tomorrow’s Parties festivals—in general, hand full discretion over a music festival’s lineup to a single “curating” band or artist—is so simple, it’s a wonder that it took so long for it to become a working formula. The folks behind ATP have been at it for more than a decade now, and so perhaps it is fitting that a film has been cobbled together to memorialize the phenomenon.

Purported to contain footage shot by more than 200 budding filmmakers on equipment including Super 8 cameras, camcorders and mobile phones, All Tomorrow’s Parties is a trip of sorts through the ATP experience. Even though the majority of its focus is on the past five years’ worth of English holiday camp ATP festivals, it’s more of a fast-paced visual postcard than a documentary or concert film, preferring to let scattered found images explain the purpose and atmosphere of the endeavor. So much is clear from the opening scenes, in which the frenzied electric squeal of Battles serves as a soundtrack to visuals that alternate between shots of the band and golden age footage of English holiday campers arriving at their summer bungalows. If the ATP festivals can be likened to anything, it’s a rock fantasy land, where fans room next door to their heroes and a life-changing set might be happening at the ballroom or sidewalk around the corner.

The bulk of the film follows a pattern of intermixing concert footage, fan footage and archival footage. Throughout, the concert scenes are well shot and convey the diversity one can find at the various ATP events. Blistering footage of Lightning Bolt rolls quickly into scenes of a solo Daniel Johnston performing on stage, in his room and seated in the grass amongst cross-legged fans, while boisterous sets by the Dirty Three and Grinderman stand in stark contrast to a beachside Grizzly Bear performance. Footage of the fans relaxing and partying during temporary breaks in the music serve to show the marked dynamics of the holiday camp events—one minute the Boredoms are wailing on stage, and the next a small group of campers are quietly gathered around a late night fire on the beach.

Video predating the festivals frames the actual ATP experience, underscoring the anti-commercial, pro-artist and pro-fan intentions of the events. A scene from 1991: The Year Punk Broke, in which Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore half-jokingly suggests destroying corporate record companies to oblivious German 20-somethings, appears twice as an interesting companion to vintage footage of Patti Smith pleading for the return of rock to the hands of the people and Iggy Pop railing against the term “punk rock.” Sun Ra even makes an appearance, asking viewers and concertgoers to play their part in “the vast arkestra of the cosmos.”

While the film is heavy on the ATP philosophy, it suffers at times because of the speed with which it whips through the performances. Heavy-hitters like the Stooges and Portishead are given proper airtime, but many of the artists are featured only briefly. For instance, it was an inspired choice to simultaneously pair footage of jazz great Roscoe Mitchell performing with video of seagulls in flight, but viewers are allowed to soak in the scene for only a few seconds before being hurried along to the next bit of action.

Perhaps the quick-hitting nature of the film is intentional, designed to mimic the actual experiences of the festivals. At one point, the Dirty Three’s Warren Ellis comments that he hadn’t seen so many acts condensed into such a short period of time, and by the end of the film the viewer can certainly empathize with him. In this sense, All Tomorrow’s Parties is successful in being the film version of an “ultimate mix tape,” a term used to describe the festival early on in the film. Thus, although the large scope of ATP might be incapable of being crammed into 80 minutes of footage, the film works as an accurate portrayal of the spirit and reality of its subject.
Ron Wadlinger