Top of the Docs #27 – All Tomorrow’s Parties (2009)

Welcome to Top of the Docs, Flip Screen’s hub for all things documentary. This weekly column takes a look at the crème de la crème of non-fiction media, with each month tending to focus on a particular theme. For the final week of June, July, and August, we will be covering documentaries shot at music festivals!

Given the current pandemic happening across the globe, the term “staycation” is being thrown around here, there and everywhere. This phrase used to mean making the best of staying at home, whereas this new modern adaptation seems to simply mean, “a holiday that isn’t abroad,” something incredibly common for millions of people now. In Britain, a staple of these holidays are camps such as Pontins and Butlins, resorts that provide a variety of entertainment, food, and from 1999-2016, one Pontins provided a festival that would prove to be a ground zero for trends in the indie music scene.

All Tomorrow’s Parties is a festival based at Pontins, Camber Sands. The festival prided itself on being non-corporate, fan-friendly, and intimate, lowering the barriers between music and music lovers. Like any popular music festival, it was subject to a documentary. Shot by Jonathan Caouette, director of the fascinating Tarnation (2003), the film defers from the usual conventions of the genre by refusing to create a narrative. Many of the great festival films, like those made by D.A. Pennebaker, attempt to create a narrative of the film’s line-up, almost walking you through a “Best Of” of the festival’s sets. Instead, Caouette weaves together the professionally shot live performance footage, with images taken by fans and other musicians. This leads to the film having a collage like aesthetic, mixing multiple formats from Super8 to noughties quality mobile phone footage. In essence, Caouette understood the ethos of the festival, and so makes fandom integral to how you experience the film.

The film was not a runaway success, with some critics pointing their criticism more at the festival line-up than the actual film, calling it snobbish, beholden to Pitchfork’s standards, as well as criticising its lack of narrative. However, for me, that completely misses the point of this film. Caouette is in no way trying to mythologise All Tomorrow’s Parties as a festival, he is instead exploring what a festival looks like from a fan’s perspective. Our modern perceptions of Woodstock and Monterrey Pop are completely defined by D.A. Pennebaker and his films of these festivals. This is in no way a criticism of him, or the standard of his filmmaking, as they are wonderful films. However, to recreate the level of fan integration during the late-60s would have required everybody to be carrying a camera, something that seemed impossible at the time but is now very much a reality.

All Tomorrow’s Parties sees Caouette bring the festival film into the 21st Century, ignoring the need for any sort of narrative “Best Of” sets, and instead delivering a powerful collage of the festival experience straight from its attendees. Aside from the wonderful music on show, All Tomorrow’s Parties does not get enough credit for being the shot in the arm festival documentaries had long needed. And with it, Caouette secures himself a spot as perhaps the most interesting documentarian of the noughties.