Perhaps Bonnaroo was just not meant to be packaged as a DVD, unless consumers could select their own track list. That problem aside, "270 Miles From Graceland" captures the experience of Bonnaroo on film in a way that is graceful, poetic, and at times revealing. It is more akin to a Danny Clinch photograph than a music festival documentary, and that is where it finds its ultimate success.
It starts at the source and ends with the function. Danny Clinch’s best photographs reveal something about the subject that might otherwise be lost, because they don’t merely capture a subject’s image. The photos capture the subject suspended in motion, at a particular crossroads of space and time. It’s a smile that didn’t say "cheese," an unintended roll of the eyes, a playful pose that wasn’t planned. It’s Keller Williams balancing on a chair and it’s Dean Ween staring at a wall. Clinch doesn’t photograph rock stars; he photographs people who happen to be rock stars and he photographs rock stars acting like people.
It was expected that he’d do the same with "270 Miles From Graceland," and on that charge he delivers. The film is not a straight documentary, nor is it a cut-and-paste of live performances like the failed Bonnaroo 2002 DVD. "270 Miles From Graceland" is a kinetic portrait of the event, enveloped by a long-form music video. It cleverly begins in New York City, riding shotgun with Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra as they drive down to the festival grounds in Manchester, Tennessee. Around 2 hours later, it ends with DJ Scratch on stage, long after the scheduled music for the night is over, performing for the camera (and a handful of onlookers) as the credits roll. In the middle is a flowing, lyrical collage of Bonnaroo 2003 that merges performances and press conferences and backstage antics and shakedown vendors and campground sequences with equal care. A boy and girl holding hands and sharing a particular moment is given the same emphasis as a shot of Warren Haynes joyfully greeting his bandmates in the Allman Brothers. Fantastic performances by the Flaming Lips and James Brown and Leo Kottke with Mike Gordon find common ground with vendors showing off their wares and a pair of clueless girls talking about their accidental arrival. It is that sense of equality and wholeness which gives the film a warmth missing in much of today’s festival films; through attentive camerawork and thoughtful editing, "270 Miles From Graceland" reveals the music, fans, musicians, campgrounds, art installations, and the experience of participation as being equal parts of the same equation. The fans carry the plot here as much as scenes of the Dead rehearsing in a trailer or Robert Randolph goofing off during a photo shoot. And almost every shot, it seems, is illuminating.
When I committed to this review, there were certain points of contention I intended to harp on. I planned a nitpick assessment in which I questioned the musical choices namely, why so many great performances were left out but that is an insurmountable obstacle that no director or producer will ever be able to overcome. Not unless they offer "choose your own track list" downloads or entire uncut footage of the festival in a 10-DVD box set that would cost way too much. And it would still lose money because of the enormous expense of filming each performance in its entirety. Still, there’s a suspicious lack of true extended jamming here and the artist list is a bit lopsided when compared to all of the artists who performed. Additionally, there is an overlapping of artists who have appeared on both of the Bonnaroo DVDs while others still get the shaft.
Clinch had mapped out with the artists in advance which songs he was going to film, thus missing many of the truly spontaneous moments that typically highlight the Bonnaroo performances. However, logistical barriers and budget constraints provide a legit excuse. Fair enough, I suppose.
That’s not what this DVD is about, anyway. It’s tough to air a list of grievances when you realize the criticisms, though real, miss the point. After all, this is not a repeat of the horrible Bonnaroo 2002 DVD. I’m not sure that Danny Clinch, as director, cared to create a take-home trinket for festival attendees to stash with their souvenir books or an MTV-style documentary to serve as a brochure of the 2003 festival. It is a scrapbook of sorts but with an artistic voice that is musical in and of itself.
In fact, I emailed Clinch last week asking what he thought makes a photograph truly great and his response was "a moment." Well then, "270 Miles From Graceland" is a string of great moments, edited together with a corresponding soundtrack.
On the bonus disc, there is a chapter called "Portraits." Among other things, there are images of a man wearing Steal Your Face paint, friends kissing, a girl dancing in her undies, an old hippie holding an old hippie bumper sticker, a couple intertwined in a hammock, someone dancing under a fountain, a boy with a Spiderman toy, a man with a water bottle, two hoolahoopers, one stick handler, a kid resting under a tree, attractive people, unattractive people, young, old, all beautiful, stopping to smile for the cameras and share a moment. And that’s what it’s all about. Get it?
For my final stanza of the last century, in September of 1999, I spent several weeks traveling across the continent in a Red Baron automobile with rock photographer Mike Mac.
Looking back on the trip, moments stored in motion in my memory are activated through still images that Mike Mac skillfully produced a sunrise in Montana; a coffeehouse in Vancouver; countless Phish parking lots. Conversely, Danny Clinch, who has been one of the more inspiring rock photographers of the past decade, has crossed the threshold to bring it to us the other way around. His eye for images has finally brought us motion. This time, Bonnaroo provides the backdrop. People provide the story. And motion tells the tale.