Coachella, meet Couchella: New documentary is a breezy desert daze
The film chronicles how a money-losing event in Indio gradually grew from a flop into the world’s biggest annual music festival and pop-culture event
The timing couldn’t have been worse when Coachella, now the world’s biggest annual music festival and pop-culture phenomenon, debuted in 1999 on the grassy fields of the Empire Polo Club in Indio.
Coming in the wake of the calamitous 1999 edition of Woodstock — which ended with arson, looting and New York state police riot squads being called in to quell the violence — it seemed like a remarkably unfortunate moment to claim the national spotlight. And it was.
“We announced Coachella the Monday after Woodstock ('99 ended), and it was a total disaster. People asked, ‘Why would you do this right now?’ Trying to sell tickets was pretty much impossible. The city (of Indio) wanted to cancel it,” recalls Coachella co-founder Paul Tollett in the new film documentary “Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert.” It debuts on YouTube at noon Friday. That is the exact time this year’s edition of Coachella was scheduled to begin, before the coronavirus pandemic led to the festival’s two April weekends being postponed until October.
“We hadn’t thought about Woodstock,” Tollett recalls in one of the film’s multiple interviews. “We wanted to be in the tradition of the California festivals. We wanted to have the (same) feeling of (1967’s) Monterey Pop, (1974’s) Cal Jam, (1983’s) US Festival; the whole California laid-back vibe.”
Billed as the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival, the first edition was laid-back and then some. But that’s primarily because so few people — less than 20,000 for each of its two days — attended the festival, a point this documentary candidly acknowledges.
Or, as a festival spokesman said in a Union-Tribune preview of the 1999 edition: “This will be the festival’s first year. Our hope is that it won’t be the last. This has been two years in the planning. One of our main goals is to have a really comfortable show for the public. We felt the natural beauty of the site would make it ideal for the festival.”
The first Coachella was headlined by Beck, Tool and Rage Against the Machine. It lost close to $1 million for its producers, the Los Angeles-based Goldenvoice, and did not return in 2000. (Former University of California San Diego student Marc Geiger, who co-founded the Lollapalooza festival in 1991 and has been the booking agent for numerous Coachella acts over the years, is credited in the film for helping Goldenvoice handle its initial financial debts.)
Coachella came back in 2001 as a pared-down, one-day event. But that was only after concert-industry powerhouse AEG Live bought Goldenvoice and gave it a major infusion of cash to resume the event in Indio.
It took at least three more years before Coachella earned a small profit, before growing by leaps and bounds. In 2007, the same year Björk and San Diego’s Nickel Creek performed, the festival expanded from two days to three and drew a then-record 186,000 attendees. (See below for a list of other San Diego acts that have performed at Coachella over the years.)
It was also in 2007, if memory serves, that Paris Hilton and other spotlight-fueled celebs began to conspicuously attend Coachella. Their presence drew paparazzi and mainstream media attention to what had previously been almost exclusively a festival produced by cool, music-loving hipsters for scores of other cool, music-loving hipsters.
In 2008, Coachella debuted a $4,500 VIP three-day package for two that included all-access passes and “Shikar style” safari tent, fully furnished with king beds, linens, pillows, dressers, carpets, air-conditioning, a shaded outdoor table with chairs, plus a daily, all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet. (An equivalent VIP package for two is priced at $9,500 at this years postponed festival.)
By 2010, Coachella had grown so popular that it stopped selling single-day tickets and switched entirely to three-day passes. By 2012, Coachella had expanded to two weekends, each featuring the identical lineup, with headlining sets by Radiohead, The Black Keys, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and a show-stopping hologram of the deceased Tupac Shakur. This came a year after YouTube began live-streaming performances at Coachella.
“The Tupac hologram became a flash point in people’s perception of seeing the festival online and seeing what a cultural moment one event could be on a festival stage,” former Goldenvoice content strategy director Raymond Leon Roker, now the head of AEG Studios, said in a Monday phone interview. “Eight years later, people are still talking about the Tupac hologram as if it happened yesterday.”
Ditto Beyoncé's eye-popping 2018 Coachella extravaganza, Rage Against the Machine’s fiery 2007 reunion and Daft Punk’s 2006 performance, which set a new visual and aural standard for electronic dance music.
All three are given ample screen time in the documentary. It also features performances by everyone from Kanye West, Morrissey and Prince (whose suitably high-octane version of “Let’s Go Crazy” brings the film to a close) to the bats-inspired Bauhaus (featuring North County bassist David J), Swedish House Mafia and Billie Eilish, who was only 18 when she performed at Coachella last year. (Lorde, who was just 17 when she sang at the 2014 edition of Coachella, appears to hold the record for youngest female solo artist to appear at the festival.)
Goldenvoice, which produced the documentary, deserves credit for addressing Coachella’s uphill battle to establish itself, while downplaying just how much of a juggernaut the festival has become. (By 2017, daily attendance for the two-weekend, six-day event had swelled to 125,000 — 20 percent from San Diego County — and it grossed a staggering $114.6 million that year. It has grown even larger since then.)
Coachella’s remarkable success has been felt worldwide and has inspired the launch of numerous other festivals eager to follow suit. When KAABOO debuted in 2015 at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, the producers hired Coachella’s former publicity team and gave attendees festival schedules that used the same type style and design as the schedules at Coachella.
Presented in a past-to-present chronology, the documentary celebrates Coachella’s enviable legacy while trying to avoid being overtly self-congratulatory. It’s a tricky balancing act that doesn’t always work. Moreover, because of time restrictions, there are some reductive elements and key omissions.
The Pixies’ 2004 performance at Coachella is justly cited as fueling Coachella co-founder Tollett’s impressive run of getting bands to reunite at the festival. But apart from Jane’s Addiction, Wu-Tang Clan and LCD Soundsystem, little or nothing is said about the many other acts whose members buried the hatchet and returned to the stage at Coachella.
They range from The Replacements, Pavement, Mazzy Star and Sly & The Family Stone (with the long missing-in-action Sly Stone back on board, if barely, for a night) to OutKast, At The Drive-In, Public Image Ltd. and The Jesus and Mary Chain (who were joined by actress Scarlett Johansson as a guest vocalist).
And while Prince is featured, the Coachella performances by such fellow Rock & Roll Hall of Famers as Paul McCartney, Roger Waters, AC/DC, Leonard Cohen, David Byrne and Guns N’ Roses are either ignored or flash by in the blink of an eye.
More attention is given to this game-changing festival’s generational shift in recent years, which has seen it embrace reggaeton (Bad Bunny), K-Pop (Blackpink) and such pop favorites as Ariana Grande (who was joined on stage during her Coachella set last year by Justin Bieber).
But there’s no mention of Stagecoach, the annual country-music festival Goldenvoice launched in 2007 at the same site as Coachella, or of the major impact the jam-band Phish’s 2009 Festival 8 had on the subsequent revamping of Coachella by Goldenvoice, which co-produced the Phish event at the same Indio location.
Roker and “Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert” director Chris Perkel began going through a huge array of largely uncatalogued footage of the festival in 2013. They first contemplated a series of 10 episodes, each an hour long.
They eventually opted for the 100-minute documentary that starts streaming, free of charge, Friday at noon.
“One of the reasons this project was seven years in the making is that we were looking at footage the whole time,” said Perkel, a film editor of the 2011 Cameron Crowe-directed documentary “Pearl Jam Twenty.”
“We’re talking footage of hundreds of acts each year, over multiple weekends for most of those years. We have a warehouse of footage, more footage than any human could watch.”
The shorter playing time means that “Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert” offers an overview, rather than a deep dive. But Perkel and Roker have done a solid job of selecting memorable moments from the festival’s first two decades. And they are eager to create other iterations of the reams of performance and interview footage they have at hand.
“Part of what made this project so much fun,” Perkel said, “is that — in the early days — it was like an archaeological dig, where you wouldn’t know what you were about to discover.”
“We found a lot of gems we didn’t know existed,” Roker agreed. “And there’s a lot more for us to mine for projects in the future.”
Coachella quotes of note
How big an impact has Coachella had on popular culture? Here are some examples.
“This is not a rock concert. This is not Coachella.” — Barack Obama
“Everybody knows what Coachella is. Even if you don’t care about music you know.” — Billie Eilish
“You want to pick up the paper the next day and see them talking about what you did (at Coachella), what the three acts before you did.” — Rapper/actor Ice Cube
“When you said you would take me to California for the first time, I thought you meant Coachella or Disneyland!” — Shuri (played by Letitia Wright), in the hit film “Black Panther”
San Diego’s Coachella presence
Nickel Creek, Slightly Stoopid, Drive Like Jehu, Deap Vally, The Gaslamp Killer, Grand Ol Party, The Night Marchers, Ryn Weaver and The Soft Pack are among the San Diego-bred acts to perform at the festival over the years. Tijuana’s Nortec Collective performed at both the 2001 and 2015 editions of Coachella.
“Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert”
Rating: Not rated
When: Begins streaming at noon Friday, APril 10
Where: Coachella’s YouTube channel, youtube.com/coachella
Three stars (out of four)
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