Filmmakers Hope Coachella Doc Will Be a "Comfort" During Coronavirus Pandemic

2019 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival - Getty - H 2020
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Director Chris Perkel hopes "in lieu of the springtime Coachella," watching the YouTube Originals documentary will be "a little vicarious, communal experience that we're all really craving."

Though the festival itself won’t be happening until October, Coachella attendees can still revel in the desert music on Friday — from the comfort of their couches.

Coachella's promoter, Goldenvoice, announced in March that the annual Indio, California, festival was pushed back from two weekends in April to October because of the spread of the coronavirus. A YouTube Originals documentary covering the festival’s 20-year history was set to air March 31 ahead of the event. But after Coachella was postponed, the creative team behind Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert decided to release the doc April 10, on what would have been the first day of Coachella Weekend 1.

A Goldenvoice Production (made in association with Hamsterdam Productions), Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert premieres at noon Friday in an event that’s being marketed as #Couchella. The film tracks the music evolution and cultural impact of Coachella with interviews and performance footage from Billie Eilish, Kanye West, Daft Punk, Madonna, Blackpink and LCD Soundsystem, as well as Travis Scott and Rage Against the Machine, which were set to headline the 2020 festival.

Ahead of its release, THR spoke with producer-director Chris Perkel and executive producer Raymond Leon Roker — who also is vp at AEG Studios/AEG Global Partnerships (AEG owns Goldenvoice) — about the coronavirus’ impact on the documentary and the festival.

How did you become interested in doing a Coachella documentary? 

Raymond Leon Roker: I got hired by Coachella and Goldenvoice in 2013 and was tasked with trying to figure out what Coachella could be doing more with content. The minute I arrived, I started asking questions. Boxes of tape were sitting under Paul Tollett's desk. They'd given me a hard drive. I started to un-bury this material out of my own curiosity. We were digitizing it at the time, and we didn't really have a plan.

We had a very early deck that we put together that just said, "Coachella: The Lost Tapes," and we were going to do [it] with a series of shorter hour or half-hour episodes that would cover various deep dive topics around the festival's evolution. We sought out Chris and took the next several years to create pilots and hourlong episodes.

It wasn't until we got into a conversation with the YouTube Originals team that we decided that we would pursue producing this as a feature documentary around 2017. At that point, we shifted gears and developed the story and caught it up to the moment in time that we were in, which was on the eve of Beyoncé performing in 2018. Now we had a 20-year retrospective story to tell.

In what other ways did the YouTube partnership affect the project or add to the project?

Roker: The festival had grown up with the platform. We had live-streamed on YouTube for now 10 years. YouTube really represented the home for the vast majority of the talent that appears in the project and plays the festival. We were able to really build on the legacy of our partnership.

Chris, what appealed to you about the project and coming on board?

Chris Perkel: I got the call in 2013. I like to joke that I didn't know at the time that I was signing up for my life's work because it took so long. I'd gotten invited into the fold because I'd come off of editing Pear Jam Twenty [in 2011], which is a really large archive-heavy project. 

Coachella represents popular culture. As a result, having all of this material to play with gives you the opportunity to look at the evolution of popular culture. It's a unique prism because of its stature and breadth. As a storyteller working in an archive-heavy world, you can't imagine a better archive to work with.

How did you work through all the footage to create this focus on the festival's music evolution? 

Perkel: [It was] a lot of conversations about what the festival reflects culturally, how the festival has grown and what those tentpole moments have been. We tried to break down those arcs. We're trying to trace from '99 to 2019: What are the stops along the journey that you need to hit in order to understand that evolution? You need to understand how hip-hop emerged in the festival space, and you need to understand the evolution of electronic music, finding its place among the headlining acts. You need to understand the flash points for the festival itself, like [Dr. Dre's] Tupac hologram or Beyoncé, things that became part of the national conversation and changed the way people understood the festival. You automatically end up finding big buoy points that you need to build toward.

Roker: The last time that the festival told its story was the first documentary film [Coachella] that Drew Thomas directed in 2005, released in 2006. That was the festival's first few years, but so many of these topics hadn't even happened by then — like what happened with hip-hop culture and how dance music morphed.

When we started working on this project, we didn't have a Calvin Harris performance at main stage or a Kaskade performance yet. [Coachella] hadn't been on record for talking about the culture. We sat silently, and this stuff sat in the archives.

Since beginning in 2013, what's been most surprising for you to learn over this seven-year period and seeing how much the music scene has changed?

Perkel: The Beyoncé performance, which we knew was a bookend of sorts in that it was such a big moment, so important culturally and illustrated a lot of the growth we were trying to demonstrate. We didn't know what that would look like the following year. What ended up feeling like the prevailing narrative of [2019] was this movement toward all of these international acts and having the spectrum be even wider than before — seeing Latin artists performing in Spanish on the big stage and seeing K-pop and J-pop acts performing to big crowds. 

It reinforced the hypothesis that everything was moving in this direction toward wideness, which ultimately felt [like] the most important and interesting evolution that you could track through this film in these 20 years. It was validating.

Was there a temptation to end the documentary after Beyoncé's performance or how did her Homecoming Netflix film impact the documentary?

Perkel: When 2019 came around and we were continuing to work on the project, we knew we needed 2019 to be represented. It ended up creating some of my favorite elements in the film that all follow culturally in the wake of Beyoncé — all those international artists that appear. It also gave us the opportunity to capture Billie Eilish's ascension and [Kanye West's] Sunday Service that we were able to weave as almost an epilogue to the film. It all worked out for the best. 

Roker: Beyoncé would have been the end of the film because we were prepared initially to deliver that film after that 2018 year. As it worked out, we ended up extending and continuing to film in 2019. In the spring of 2018, we had no way of knowing what was going to happen. You definitely didn't know what a Billie Eilish would become in the two years since. So how does the festival enter the next 20 years? It ended up becoming an interesting preview of what culture has in store.

Right, you have footage of your 2019 Billie Eilish interview toward the beginning of the documentary. At that point, people didn't know that she would make Grammys history in 2020. 

Roker: Absolutely. Everything about her, everything that she stands for, creatively, culturally but obviously musically — and her age and her station in this generation — says so much about what the role the festival landscape serves, as a backdrop for culture to take root.

Perkel: One of the things that was so much fun last year was watching Billie Eilish and Lizzo both break in real time. They literally got bigger between the two weekends. It speaks to the power of Coachella as a platform. 

With Coachella being postponed this year, why do you think the documentary is coming at the right time?

Perkel: Everything is strange right now. Obviously this isn't the context into which we imagined the film entering. All that changed when the festival was postponed. A lot of internal deliberation existed around when and how to release it in this new context. As a filmmaker, I'm grateful for the fact that it's coming out now, basically in lieu of the springtime Coachella. It provides an opportunity for a little vicarious, communal experience that we're all really craving and forced to live without at the moment.

So while that wasn't the primary intention of the film — the opportunity to give us a little relief, a little distraction, a little [taste] of experiences that are important to us, that we don't have the ability to engage in at the moment — it gives us another level that I hope is valuable and rewarding.

Roker: Our intention wasn't to play a role in the current conversation that is such a challenge and is so unsettling for so many people, us included. But the film at a minimum can be a point of comfort for fans — that if for any other circumstances would find themselves out in Indio, dancing with friends — and if this is a place that they can show up for a minute and transport themselves there, then that'll make us happy. That's the best byproduct that we can hope for given the weird and strange moment that we're a part of right now.

It's now being branded as #Couchella on social media, for people to watch on the sofa. How has the coronavirus had other effects, perhaps on marketing or other strategies? 

Roker: We're hyper-conscious and sober to the moment, and that affects everything that we do, including this film and how we want to talk about it and how we hope that it's received. This moment in time is a shock to the system, and we're not immune to that.

Back to the content of the film, we've talked about the impact on music culture over time. Another major change to Coachella has been the rise of influencer culture, which is less touched upon onscreen. How did you explore that while making the documentary? Is that something you were able to see throughout filming this?

Roker: It was never really something that we were going to dive into. [It] didn't rise to the level that we felt it was part of this story. It's obviously part of Coachella and maybe generationally what this cohort of festivalgoers brings to culture. We see it as just a cultural reality and a cultural backdrop for what goes on today.

There are visual nods to it to some degree in the film, but it wasn't an area [with] something to unpack. I'm sure that as we continue to look for ways to tell culturally relevant stories around Coachella, there'll be other occasions where there's more material that we may want to unpack around that, whether it be through influencer culture or style and beauty or fashion. We made a pretty conscious effort that that wasn't necessarily the piece of the puzzle that we were looking, for us, in this project, to fill in.

Perkel: I agree with that. Coachella is a context for influencer culture, but that story is not necessarily about Coachella. With something that has this much material, we needed to establish boundaries. So diving into fashion — because obviously the festival had a big impact on fashion — wasn't the purview we were choosing to tackle.

Have you been surprised over the years to see how that festival also has impacted not only music culture but internet culture and influencer culture by being photogenic?

Perkel: One of the things we wanted to make sure that the film communicated was the growth of the festival as a cultural touchstone. You can see the evolution [and] the crowd's evolution with the aesthetic. There are a lot of crowds, and [it's] striking in how unfamiliar they feel now because the world has changed and continued to grow and evolve.

Roker: It's an interesting, modern component of the festival. It's all a natural evolution of what you would expect, aided by now technology and a completely fluent generation of kids that this is the ways and means of communication and celebration.

The only reason you have [the] festival culture you have today is you could blame it on the iPod and MP3. Then you introduce streaming, and then you introduce influencer culture. These three things have all been backdrops for what's amplified this festival and others, but especially Coachella, to the broader world. That's not lost on us. 

Are you continuing to film this process and this year's pushed festival for a potential future documentary?

Roker: We filmed more than ever. We filmed so much. We always film with the intent that we're making more, so we have material to go as companion content to the live stream. Short answer is yes, we continue to ingest huge amounts of content. In the both near- and medium-terms, we intend to continue to produce either short- or feature-length material. 

I imagine you could have a whole documentary on the coronavirus impact this year on Coachella. Are there plans for that film?

Roker: There are no plans for that film. You're definitely right that if there was a cultural moment that inspired a lot of thinking and searching for meaning and implications, it's this moment. But who knows how that story will be told and exactly how it ends.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.