Spark: A Burning Man Story: Film Review

Doc mostly glosses over controversy in its feel-good history.

The long-lived Burning Man phenomenon gets its second doc portrait.

Burning Man, the weeklong annual event in which tens of thousands of people head to the Nevada desert to express themselves and/or get naked, is surely a phenomenon that has grown culturally significant enough (and has always been sufficiently colorful) to justify theatrical doc treatment. Steve Brown and Jessie Deeter's Spark: A Burning Man Story isn't the first film offering to take homebound viewers to Black Rock City -- Olivier Bonin's Dust & Illusions made the fest circuit a couple of years ago -- and it is unlikely to be the one that stands as the definitive document. The too-admiring film, despite some good photography of the event, isn't nearly probing enough to feel like much more than a board-approved origin story. The event's recognition factor may sell some tickets, but theatrical bookings should be short-lived.

Though its reputation is of an anything-goes Neverland, over two-plus decades the event has become a regulated affair out of necessity. Fifty full-time staffers and thousands of volunteers are required, and the film gives us just enough of a peek inside their offices to see how un-hippie-dippie that planning can be. They don't, however, leave us with much understanding of the bureaucratic evolution of what began as a beach party, grew into an event whose tickets could cost over $400 (price is never mentioned here), and is now "transitioning into a nonprofit" after some reportedly bitter disagreements among its founders over the nature of the enterprise. Brown and Deeter are more interested in the feel-good part of the story and provide an evocative if sketchy account of Burning Man's roots in things like San Francisco's Cacophony Society, which specialized in funny-dress pranks that had their own origins in Dada and Situationism.

They also intend to convey what the event has come to mean for the 55,000-plus attendees who haven't been there since the beginning. Focusing on three, they show how much time, work and money -- not to mention self-transformational ambition -- goes into even a modestly scaled Burning Man project. Though the three are diverse personalities, you may feel that they're such a tiny sliver of the overall community that time would have been better spent either on more historical detail or with an on-the-ground assembly of interviews involving as many random attendees as possible.

Attractive photography captures the costumes, blinking lights, heavily modified vehicles and oddball art installations that fill the vast playa in the days leading to the signature bonfire. But the spectacle is accompanied by some lifeless pop songs that make happy anarchy feel bland. The scenes document some creativity but do little to win over any viewer inclined to see Burning Man as the refuge of privileged, mostly white people who want a more artsy version of Spring Break before heading back to their jobs in corporate America.


Production Company: Spark Pictures

Directors-Producers: Steve Brown, Jessie Deeter

Executive producers: Alec Lorimore, Chris Weitz, David Chang, Robert Zangrillo, Konstantin Othmer

Director of photography: John Behrens

Music: Joachim Cooder

Editor: Andrew Gersh

No rating, 90 minutes