Thursday, May 7, 2009

SXSW 2009: All Tomorrow's Parties

A good documentary (and really, any good film) always begins the same way: an interesting idea. You could have the most well-shot, produced, and edited 90 minutes of film to ever hit the silver screen...and it wouldn't mean shit if it was about a boring subject. Occasionally films hit big by making the mundane extraordinary ("Last Days", "Slacker", etc), but these are few and far between. Chances are, if you're making a documentary and you've found an interesting person, place, or event that nobody's made a documentary about, you're on the right track.

Unfortunately, the idea is only half the equation, and execution the other half. "All Tomorrows' Parties" began with a great idea: the artist-engineered music festival that shares the feature's name. The brain-child of Belle and Sebastian promoter Barry Hogan, the ATP festival has been following the same creed for about 10 years: no one knows art better than artists. Each year, in East Sussex, a different artist is asked to "curate" the festival (usually this is a musician but not always), meaning they invite their favorite bands to come and play...essentially, they build the lineup, usually performing as the headliners. The festival is also sponsorship-free, and performers stay in the same accommodations as fans (from the looks of the film, a series of apartmet buildings on the festival grounds), creating a summer-camp like atmosphere of indie/underground music.

Sounds fascinating, right? Too bad the creators of "ATP" (movie) couldn't decide what kind of documentary film they had set out to make. The feature begins with a brief rundown of what the festival is all about, how it got started etc (this is done mostly through unidentified voice-over), and then jumps immediately into long stretches of (presumably) fan-shot material of the festival grounds broken up by more professional looking bits of the performances. Large chunks of the fan-style stuff will follow an unidentified person as he/or she wanders the grounds, talks to other unidentified persons, etc. The footage is novel at first, but the complete lack of structure and context wears it thin fairly quickly. Save for the first few opening minutes, the film is narration-less and interview-less. Thankfully, the filmmakers had the foresight to label each snippet of concert footage with titles ID'ing the performers, the year of the festival, and the curator of the lineup, but beyond that the viewer is really given no clue as to what's going on.

"ATP" has moments of charming, verite charm: there are several impromptu jam sessions in the apartments surrounding the event, and an oddly authentic-feeling altercation between comedian David Cross and a heckler after a bombed performance, but "Don't Look Back" it ain't. And it's certainly no "Song Remains the Same" either...somehow the filmmakers set out to make a mash-up of verite and concert film and wound up with neither A or B, but a staggering mess of a slapped-together footage that serves no larger purpose, and at least one audience member wishing he knew just a little bit more about all the images he's looking at. It's a sad testament to how uninformative "ATP" is that I had to look up most of the information about the festival on wikipedia. For shame.

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