Burning Man started as a solstice celebration on a San Francisco beach for 20 bohemian friends in 1988. Today it is a megafestival drawing 55,000 artsy souls to the desert in Nevada for eight days around Labor Day weekend. It has experienced major success but also acute growing pains — and these are at the heart of “Spark: A Burning Man Story,” which has some lively moments but falls short of expectations.
Alternative filmmakers Steve Brown and Jessie Deeter (known for directing “Revenge of the Electric Car”) win great access to the eccentric, hippie-rooted founders of Burning Man. But the problem is that we don’t see the festival through the eyes of the fans. Instead the documentary gets bogged down with tedious boardroom arguments among the organizers who are trying to preserve their utopian vision but need to compromise to keep it going as a business enterprise.
The fans, who are called “burners,” are seen only in festival footage, but we never hear them discuss why they came or what their living conditions were like, or what was the message they took home, or how they endured 110-degree heat and dust storms.
What they find is a Disneyland for the Occupy Movement crowd with colorful art and costumes everywhere. They have come for the climactic, ceremonial burning of a 35-foot-tall, 300-pound wooden statue called Burning Man, along with the torching of a block-long “Burn Wall Street,” with wooden buildings named “Bank of UnAmerica” and “Goldman Sucks.” Fire is everywhere, from flame jugglers roaming the desert grounds to pyro bursts jumping out of art installations. There is obviously some primitive mythology involved, but the founders say it’s up to people to figure it out for themselves. The founders are also too busy dealing with deadlines and a ticket crisis to worry about much else. (More than three times as many people applied for tickets as could get them for the 2012 festival shot for this film.)
The “Burn Wall Street” idea was conceived by a long-haired ex-Marine, Otto Von Danger, who becomes an unwitting star, along with nanny-turned-welder Katy Boynton and quick-jiving cofounder Jon La Grace. But the action is stymied by the incessant meetings and constant soul-searching about the 10 Burning Man principles, which include “radical self-expression” and “communal effort.”
The festival has been getting more organized and security-conscious since a near-riot in 1996 when fans torched some of the installations in a “Mad Max”-like frenzy. But this documentary doesn’t provide any context from the attendees. Mostly, it’s a promotional vehicle for Burning Man — the founders are portrayed as heroes — though true pop lovers will still enjoy the actual footage of the event.Steve Morse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.