|« Beowulf & Grendel! On Stage at Chief O'Neill's||Hubbard Street Dance Winter Series Dazzles »|
Review Mon Dec 14 2015
A music festival--or any concert, for that matter--is a conversation between the musicians on stage and the vast array of fans before them. But to this point, that conversation has really only been explored from the artists' perspective. There's a certain mystique that accompanies the art of live performance and garners the lion's share of critical attention, but much of that mystique stems from the electric energy generated by the crowd itself. FESTIVAL, a documentary produced and directed by North Coast Music Festival co-founder Mike Raspatello, delves into this side of the live music story and successfully captures the essence of the festival experience. I was fortunate enough to attend a pre-screening of the film at the New 400 Theaters in Rogers Park, and it made a powerful impression.
The film opens cold on Travis, a 24-year-old man in a wheelchair, reading a poem from his phone about the visceral effect of EDM on his body. In a number of ways, the opening scene sets the stage supremely for what follows. For one, FESTIVAL is, above all, a story about people, namely seven concertgoers who attended North Coast in 2013. Travis and his friends Austin and Jill are three of these seven, and their backgrounds are intensely compelling: Travis has been paralyzed after a botched surgery a decade previously, Austin has spent over three years in jail for dealing LSD, and Jill has suffered through heroin addiction before sobering up. Even more compelling is the fact that they are each able to talk about their dark pasts with such candor and matter-of-factness--but that, in part, speaks to the healing power of the music that brings them together with the thousands of other festival attendees. Travis, Austin, and Jill are full of life, they act wonderfully naturally throughout their North Coast experience despite the cameras (especially Travis, whose upbeat snark is a joy to behold), and they collectively represent the spirit of the film. Every moment when they're on screen is a highlight, particularly Jill's interaction with a man dressed as the green Power Ranger, an absurdity that she just accepts at face value because this is a festival and anything goes.
The other characters vary in their effectiveness at transmitting FESTIVAL's message. Barbara, a Polish immigrant, is the definition of a free spirit, coming to the concert alone, receiving a flower bracelet, and befriending a random guy while chattering away in an accent that makes her all the more lovable. It's stunning, therefore, when we find out in the film's epilogue that she is now married with a child (and her out-of-concert screen presence isn't quite as radiant). Meanwhile, Tracy, a PLUR enthusiast who attends the festival with her boyfriend, serves as a quasi-narrator, hammering home a number of global statements that give her a sort of omniscience that makes up for her lack of memorable in-concert moments. Really the only character who feel out of place is Kenneth, aka "Cobweb." His encyclopedic knowledge of hip hop doesn't really contribute to the story, and his time at the festival is spent almost entirely in a tent conversing with a rapper--it doesn't seem like he's there at all. There's also another young woman featured in this version of the film who just isn't terribly interesting, either in her background or in her festival experience. According to Raspatello, though, she has withdrawn her participation in the project and won't appear in the final cut. Here's hoping that her vacated screen time will be spent on Travis, Austin, and Jill.
Weaving in and out of the narrative of FESTIVAL's main subjects is an oral history of the music festival itself, as told by three industry experts: Rolling Stone's Steve Knopper, Bonnaroo founder Rick Farman, and Jeff Shaw, Live Nation's Senior Vice President of Strategic Alliances. Together, they tackle everything from the origins of the festival and its revival after the failure of Woodstock '99 to the rise of EDM as a dominant force on the scene. Simultaneously witty and informative, the experts put the characters' experiences into context and remain interesting throughout the film. At times, the integration of the exposition segments with the in-concert footage feels a bit choppy--transitions, on the whole, are a weak point of FESTIVAL--but each individual scene is well-chosen, and when everything is cobbled together, the film's combination of armchair history and field research provides a neat look at the fans' side of the concert festival story.
If there's a singular reason to go see FESTIVAL, it's the footage gathered by Raspatello and his team at North Coast 2013. The subjects of the camera are clearly the fans and not the artists, with very little time devoted to the live sets and a correspondingly large swath of the film focused on the holistic experience: wandering through a crowd on the phone, making new friends, searching for water, having nonsensical, pointless conversations, standing with bobbing head as an electric beat racks the body. These are moments to which every music fan can relate, moments that will generate the same sort of "I've been there" response from general audiences that This is Spïnal Tap elicited from rock stars.
FESTIVAL is choppy at times, and a few of its storylines are mundane, but isn't there always choppiness and mundanity at concert festival? With a little tweaking, this film could be a truly special, groundbreaking musical documentary.
*FESTIVAL is currently being re-cut and prepared for a spring 2016 film festival premiere, followed by wider release later in the year.