Today’s musical festivals in the desert are some of the most largely attended, popular, and profitable extravaganzas of the year. Desolation Center tries to illustrate how the history of events like Coachella and Burning Man can be traced back to secret shows held in the Southern California desert in the early 1980s. While director Stuart Sweezy does include some interesting information, the whole endeavor comes across as forced and, even worse, hypocritical at times.
Desolation Center is a telling of the short history of underground shows held in California. The documentary is told against the backdrop of the Los Angeles punk scene. It was a supposedly bleak time in the City of Angels, as it was a much seedier place than the rest of the country realized. This led to a punk scene that was constantly harassed by the police. Punks in L.A. needed a place where they could peacefully watch the bands they loved. The group that would eventually put these shows together was called the Desolation Center.
It is important to keep in mind that the director was also the founder of Desolation Center. (In the first eye rolling tryhard moment of the doc, Sweezy explains the name sprung from Los Angeles being the center of hopelessness.) This makes Desolation Center a documentary that lacks any kind of objectiveness. On the surface, there is nothing wrong with this. Murder in the First Row lovingly talks about the Bay Area thrash metal scene and ignores the horror stories.
The difference is Desolation Center tries to explain the influence and legacy of their shows. Their is talk about how different the scene was and how hard it was for them to just find a place to have a good time. The film also makes it a point to talk about how inclusive and loving everyone was. It is a constant stream of how cutting edge L.A. was. There is no mention of the New York punk scene and the only New York bands mentioned are the ones who played the Desolation Center shows.
This is a documentary about particular time and events so it is not necessary to go into a deep dive of punk music. However, when the film goes into the importance of Sonic Youth playing the final desert show without ever explaining who they are, it is very noticeable. Desolation Center is so caught up in getting across how important the L.A. scene is without ever providing a larger context, diluting the overall importance of everyone involved.
Sweezy is most guilty of expanding his own importance. He explains how he needed to save the punk scene from the oppressive city. When he walks through how he came up with the idea for his first show, there is never talk of how previous festivals like Woodstock had done the same thing. This is most egregious when he talks about how he planned a show held on a boat. He proudly boasts about wanting to have a show that is in direct contrast to the ones held in the desert. There is no mention of how the Sex Pistols did the exact same thing in mockery of the Queen of England almost a decade before. Omissions such as these make it difficult to take Sweezy’s self congratulatory comments serious.
Despite the inflated importance given, it is clear everyone involved loved being a part of something. Desolation Center interviews bands, fans, promoters, and many of those intimately involved. Watching everyone look back on the times with obvious joy is a highlight. Instead of forcing the narrative, the documentary would have made a stronger point by letting people from the scene speak to it. These moments are incredibly effective and are the only time viewers are given an idea of how important Los Angeles was to punk music.
Things end on a too cool for school note that is so ridiculous it is impossible not to laugh. Sweezy doubles down on how important his shows were to the creation of the modern music festival. (There is some truth to the claim, as tenuous as it may be.) What makes the end funny is how hard people try to downplay the success of their events. One of the founders of Coachella remarks how today’s society is more “mainstream”. As viewers are trying to figure out what that exactly means, he follows up by saying things are “safer” today. Just as silly, is when one of the founders of Burning Man claims he fought hard to keep things simple but one of his co founders pushed expansion. It seems like Sweezy is trying to congratulate both festivals for the success. Instead the documentary ends with text that seems to blast both for their exorbitant ticket prices. It is odd and comes off as everyone involved trying hard to prove they are cooler than the previous person.
Desolation Center seems like it will be an interesting look at the early 1980’s Los Angeles punk scene. The idea of a group of kids putting together guerrilla shows in the desert is an intriguing concept that deserves a deeper look. Unfortunately, this self important take on events lacks any of the creativity bragged about and comes off as more of presentation why the people involved were so forward thinking. It tries so hard to be the cool kid it ends up being the complete antithesis of punk.