Movie Review: Documentary celebrates 20 years of Coachella’s influence

Sheridan Lee
Staff Writer

“Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert” celebrates the 20th anniversary of Coachella by telling the complete story of the festival, from where it started to the popular event it has become. 

Before the coronavirus had us sheltered inside, the documentary was scheduled to premiere the first day of the festival. But since the festival was postponed, the documentary was released early. 

The word Coachella began trending as people watched the film to reminisce about what they were missing this year.

Coachella is a popular musical festival that takes place over the course of two weekends in the Indio desert. Last year 99,000 people attended the festival everyday for not only the music, but for fashion, food and the overall experience; in 2011 the festival began partnering with YouTube to stream the events.  This brought global awareness to the event.

Coachella is something personal to me. I’ve wanted to go since I was 13, and last year was my first year actually attending. I had already bought my tickets for this year’s festival.

The documentary was separated into five chapters that covered the journey and evolution of the festival.  

The first chapter focused on the festival’s origins, describing how Coachella came to be. Goldenvoice is the company behind the music festival, which was started by punk music promoter Gary Tovar. After Tovar was arrested for drug dealing, he gave the company to Paul Tollett, who met Tovar in Pomona – so close to the University of La Verne.

Goldenvoice then hosted a concert at the Empire Polo fields. The venue and the European festival scene inspired Tollet, that’s when he came up with the idea to host a festival in the desert. It was interesting to learn about its humble beginnings.  The first Coachella was on Oct. 9, 1999, and was controversial as it followed the riots at Woodstock. After the first Coachella they lost a lot of money and had to skip the year 2000. This chapter is raw, as it exposed the truth about the flaws in the festival no one knew about. 

Each year the festival grew and employees of Goldenvoice were in shock at how big the festival got. This came as a surprise as I’ve always seen Coachella as this famous event.

Footage from the late 1990s and early 2000s was juxtaposed with ultra HD footage from recent years. The footage is more interesting as there was always a comparison. The same goes for the lighting and stages. The lasers and pyrotechnics have come a long way from just classic strobe lights. Within four days the Coachella team was able to pull off building a grass hill for Kanye to perform on in 2019. 

The chapters go on to discuss different music genres to appear on the lineup. Coachella helped save the rave scene, as many rave events were being canceled as venues were not allowed to host events of that nature.This was interesting as they added a past clip of Joe Biden discussing the strict cut down in rave culture, now he is running for president.

Following electronic dance music was hip-hop. The creators behind the festival felt everything changed when Beyoncé was the first black female headliner in 2018. Her performance was empowering as there was an emphasis on how popular of an artist she is and the fact she made Coachella history in more ways than one. International artists started to join the lineup such as the likes of Latin artist Bad Bunny and Korean girl group Black Pink. I enjoyed watching the playback of those performances as I did attend those sets in person. The filmmakers captured the scene perfectly, capturing the high energy performances, stage lighting and crowd with fast shifting camera angles.

The documentary ended with an interview with the creator of the Sonora tent, one of the many stages. This stage in particular was made for up and coming artists to get back to the roots and show where Coachella all started. It would have helped to show footage of the tent instead of just discussing it. 

While the documentary was told from Goldenvoice’s point of view, it would have been a good idea to also tell the story from festival goers’ eyes.

Overall the documentary was well filmed and edited. It gave the behind the scenes looks that no one has ever seen before and revealed unknown information about the past of the famous festival.

“Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert” is streaming for free on YouTube.

Sheridan Lee can be reached at

Sheridan Lambrook
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Sheridan Lambrook, a senior journalism major with a concentration in visual journalism, is photography editor and a staff writer for the Campus Times.

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