In 1970, inspired by attending a blues festival, farmer Michael Eavis opened his property to 1,500 music fans who paid a £1 admission fee to hang out, watch Marc Bolan, Al Stewart, and other acts, and drink free milk from the Eavis farm. Since then, the festival has grown into an annual tradition that now attracts upward of 150,000 concertgoers and some of the biggest acts in the world while still keeping the utopian hippie spirit alive. Most of the time, anyway. Over the years, Eavis and the concert organizers have sought to encourage the right kind of anarchy by discouraging the kind that leaves attendees bloodied, and they've struggled to keep their festival vibrant, profitable, and philanthropically inclined while keeping the crasser commercial forces at bay.
Drawn from footage across the festival's history—from the 1971 film Glastonbury Fayre through British television coverage and home movies—Glastonbury offers an occasionally impressionistic account of the festival's history. Director Julien Temple—continuing an association with music films that dates back to 1980's The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle—jumps freely through the eras to cover themes like drug use, security concerns, and the festival's uneasy relationship with the New Age traveler community, those latter-day vagabonds who are both the heart and soul of Glastonbury, and its greatest safety hazard. At times, it jumps a bit too freely, perhaps to compensate for years with less footage than others. Too bad there apparently weren't more cameras on hand in the '70s and '80s.
Temple doesn't shy away from Glastonbury's controversies or suggest that the festival hasn't changed over the years. More than a few decades stand between the scene of almost-forgotten folkie Melanie singing about peace to unwashed hippies, and the scene of Kate Moss skulking around backstage as Babyshambles performs. But the film is clearly an act of boosterism, and it makes a pretty good case for the Glastonbury cause. Eavis remains the same smiling, Lincoln-bearded eminence he's always been, and while the crowd's preferred expressions of hedonism have changed over the years, the core spirit remains the same. And the music still drives it all, much as it drives the film. The concert scenes provide a crash course in British pop, from David Bowie to Pulp to The Prodigy. (Well, they can't all be winners.) Having first performed there in '71, an older Bowie returns to Glastonbury to close the film with "Heroes," addressing the crowd without a trace of irony. Their utopia-in-miniature may not be made to last for long, but the idea keeps going after the stages have been taken down.