Review: Coachella Brings ‘20 Years In The Desert’ To Couchbound Fans

Robert Gauthier/ Los Angeles Times / Getty Images
– Coachillin’
Goldenvoice cofounder Paul Tollett at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, Calif., where Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival is held, on April 25, 2004.

Daft Punk’s paradigm-shifting pyramid. Beyoncé’s regal reorientation of pop. Career-defining sets from iconoclasts including Kanye West, Prince and Madonna. Technological marvels like the controversial Tupac hologram.

In the two decades since its 1999 debut, Coachella has hosted music’s biggest names, spawned some of its biggest moments and has permanently altered the live industry’s trajectory in too many ways to count. Prior to the coronavirus crisis, it was set to do so again last month, with a bill topped by the reformed Rage Against The Machine, the reclusive Frank Ocean and the raging Travis Scott.

The new documentary “Coachella: 20 Years In The Desert,” streaming free on YouTube Originals, captures Coachella’s history, presenting contemporary conclusions about the world-altering annual event – how it shaped festivals and live music and impacted broader cultural trends – as anything but foregone. Today, Coachella’s such a juggernaut that it can be tough to imagine a world where it wasn’t. That’s precisely what “Coachella: 20 Years In The Desert” sets out to do.

The documentary largely succeeds, in no small part thanks to executive producers Goldenvoice cofounder Paul Tollett and AEG Studios head Raymond Roker and broader support from Goldenvoice Productions. On-camera interviews with artists from Moby to Billie Eilish add starpower, but the film’s magic is in the troves of archival festival footage producer and director Chris Perkel had at his disposal, and the access his team had with Tollett, Roker and key Goldenvoice figures such as cofounder Gary Tovar and Goldenvoice VP of festival talent Stacy Vee. A Coachella documentary without performance recording is almost oxymoronic to think about; it’s possible that if not produced by Goldenvoice itself, such a film wouldn’t have been made at all.

That same team’s involvement explains some of the film’s minor shortcomings. Precursors such as Woodstock and Monterey Pop aren’t referenced until well into the film, and contemporary traveling fests like H.O.R.D.E. and Lilith Fair go unmentioned entirely. Modern critiques involving lineup diversity, radius clauses, cost and clientele are glossed over.

Instead, Coachella is framed as something of a unicorn – which, given its DIY roots, early struggles, and unlikely success, isn’t beyond the pale. “Coachella: 20 Years In The Desert” begins far from the Empire Polo Club in Indio, Calif., that Coachella has called home for two decades, instead chopping up grainy footage from the Los Angeles club shows Goldenvoice produced in the ‘80s with Jane’s Addiction, N.W.A., and more. Even if many of the festival’s patrons today might not remember the promoter’s pre-Coachella days – or might have even been unborn at the time – that rebel spirit still pulses through its core, and the documentary conveys that.

In fact, even if Goldenvoice is now known as a subsidiary of the mighty AEG, Coachella has its roots in a refusal to affiliate with The Man: Tollett and his team discovered the festival’s eventual site when promoting a Pearl Jam show in 1993, after the grunge heroes asked Goldenvoice to find it a performance site where it wouldn’t have to sell tickets through Ticketmaster. (In one of many archival gems, the documentary shows a young Eddie Vedder as he threatens to beat up the many over-enthused fans who threw their shoes onstage.)

So, while AEG might have bankrolled every Coachella after the first one – and, according to several voices in the film, was instrumental in the event’s longevity, prioritizing long-term returns over short-term profits – a desire to cut against the grain has always lingered, whether the festival put one of pop’s foremost stars in a tent sequestered from the main stage (Madonna, 2006) or put one of rap’s luminaries on a man-made hill to lead his Sunday service choir, rather than play his biggest hits (Kanye West, 2019).

“Coachella: 20 Years In The Desert” uses case studies like Madonna and West to demonstrate the festival’s centrality to the music industry and pop culture more generally. The strategy mostly works, even when the film is repackaging common analyses, like the notion that Daft Punk’s seminal pyramid set birthed the EDM boom. The observation may be familiar ground; the drone footage of Kaskade’s 2015 main stage set, less so.

The big-picture conclusions don’t always work – a montage of Kendrick Lamar, Travis Scott and Tyler, the Creator frames Coachella as a hub for hip-hop’s modern, boundary-pushing vanguard, while ignoring more mainstream rap headliners like Drake and Eminem – but looking to “Coachella: 20 Years In The Desert” for deeper criticism isn’t exactly the point. The film delivers nostalgia for the millions who have attended Coachella and, with searing archival footage from the likes of Beyoncé, Rage Against The Machine and more, sparks longing for Indio’s uninitiated.

Feeling like you missed out on music’s biggest party – what’s more Coachella than that?

Watch “Coachella: 20 Years In The Desert” below.