This small town in Somerset is dominated by a mystical hill -- Glastonbury Tor -- rumored to possess the kind of paranormal qualities that produce legends and make you want to whistle the theme from "The X-Files." Infused with mythologies of varying stripes, most notably pertaining to Joseph of Arimathea, the birth of Christianity in the British Isles, the Holy Grail, King Arthur and Guinevere, the site has been a draw for religious pilgrims and pagans for centuries. In recent years, another kind of pilgrim (or pagan, if you prefer), the die-hard pop music fan, has made its way to the nearby village of Pilton, where one of the world's largest and best-known music festivals has taken place nearly every year since 1970.
"Glastonbury," a documentary by Julien Temple (director of the Sex Pistol docs "The Filth and the Fury" and "The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle," as well as "Absolute Beginners"), chronicles the sometime turbulent history of the Glastonbury Festival. Beginning with the words of William Blake ("And did those feet in ancient time Walk upon England's mountains green?"), it's clear that Temple is much more interested in linking the festival to its mythic antecedents than pursuing anything resembling a traditional concert film.
There are plenty of performances to be sure -- primarily from the 2002-2005 festivals -- featuring the likes of the Bravery, Blur, Coldplay, Bjork and David Bowie. But Temple gives more than equal time to the fans who pack Worthy Farm each summer. From the hippies who began the festival to their punk offspring and back again, they form an itinerant, indulgent tribe eager to soak up the seemingly round-the-clock menu of amusements.
The festival, now a multi-day event, provides a variety of disparate images. Families and children co-exist with unfettered hedonists while weekend partyers frolic with the committed (the pierced and tattooed) and committable (wearing strange, indescribable costumes). Originally a back-to-nature idyll in the countryside reminiscent of a Renaissance Faire, Glastonbury has necessarily grown into a massive event with requisite sponsorships and a high-tech wall to keep out non-ticket holders.
Still, much of what is seen is precisely what one expects when mixing large quantities of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Whether it be topless women, drunken men rolling in lakes of mud or the stray naked guitarist, inhibition is not a problem.
The documentary is a mosaic, combining footage from Nicolas Roeg's film on the 1971 concert, bits and pieces of home movies and video shot by fans over the years, and newer sequences shot by Temple's crews. The performers are identified on-screen but dates and interviewees are not. More experiential than informational, the film is held together by a thin strand of historical narrative stretching from the first festival, when 1,500 people showed up at Michael Eavis' farm to the 2005 version and its throng of 150,000.
As one early festivalgoer explains, it's all about the "vibe." The film does a fairly remarkable job of capturing the attitude of the festival, covering its evolution from quaint little Woodstock knockoff into something much larger that is both hallucinatory and hypnotic. It's Mardi Gras meets Burning Man with an excellent, revolving house band.
Temple is much keener to show the ways in which the audience has became part of the molten piece of performance art than documenting a particular act. While the performances can feel frustratingly short, the overall soundtrack seamlessly patches together a sonic quilt of eclectic music that evokes a kind of timeless flow. It's not a Glastonbury of any particular vintage, but rather a continuum of experiences that have occurred on this sacred ground.
"Glastonbury." MPAA rating: R for nudity, drug use, language and some sexual content. Running time: 2 hours, 18 minutes. Exclusively at the Landmark Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A., (310) 281-8223.