There’s nothing like watching a man being rescued from a gigantic snake and flown up a 50-foot cliff face by a golden angel woman, while a gaggle of mermaids dance nearby, to bring home the fact that you’re not at Latitude anymore. You’re at Rock In Rio, dubbed the City Of Rock but more like a minor principality these days.
This mind-blowing spectacle of a festival, among the world’s biggest, takes over Rio De Janeiro’s Parque Olimpico every other year and transforms this disused Olympic training ground into an entertainment metropolis. With all the lights, noise, zip-wires and sideshows, it’s like the mothership from Planet Party has touched down for a fortnight, announcing first contact with the riff from ‘Paradise City’.
On my second trip to the Rio edition of RIR (it also takes place regularly in Lisbon), I still find myself staggered by its offerings. Entire arenas are dedicated to ecological CGI shows that take you inside the rainforest, or specially written musicals based on traditional local legends (hence all the angel and mermaid madness). Rock Street, with individual buildings themed on the architecture from different Mediterranean countries, leads down to a Favela Stage, where talent from the city’s infamous colourful slums leap around a stage set reconstruction of one.
Revellers zip-wire over the crowd across the front of the main stage while the likes of Coldplay, Green Day and Guns N’ Roses headline, and the place has got its own damn national anthem – an air-punching rock epic played across the arena every night along to a firework display that looks like all your Chinese New Years come at once.
It’s fair to say I’ve found my end-of-season happy place. If the year’s run of festivals often begins with the out-of-body-and-mind experience of Glastonbury, the rest of the summer can sometimes feel like a three-month anti-climax. Too often British fest promoters still seem to think their customers consider it an essential part of the authentic festival experience to relieve themselves in a steaming hot plastic cubicle drenched liberally in the urine of strangers.
Rock In Rio, on the other hand, ends the season with a bang. The cost of flights might be a jaw-dropper, but so is the place itself. There’s a Gourmet Square of Rio foodie heroes set up in an actual building, like Lisbon’s Time Out Market or Madrid’s San Miguel transported transatlantic. There’s an entire gaming arena complete with eSports team competitions. Besides the sort of big wheel you could find at any common or secret garden party, they’ve built a full-sized rollercoaster with a 360-degree loop. Everybody gets top-notch toilets with computer screens outside telling you how busy they are and early-bird ticket holders get access to their own bar and massage clubhouse.
Rock In Rio’s success is down to the mentality of the model. As a festival that was bailed out of debts from the legendary inaugural 1985 concerts – featuring that Queen show – by sponsors, there is – yes – branding everywhere here, bright and bold, like Times Square somehow booked Dua Lipa. Spending power in Brazil is low, so to put on the greatest show on earth at an affordable ticket price inevitably means turning yourself into the Formula One racing car of gigs.
But whereas some festivals might take the corporate dollar only to limit the experience of the audience (“Sorry, mate – just the one lager available”; ‘Apologies, but these bean bags and charger leads aren’t for people with – sniff – your type of phone service provider”), Rock In Rio use their sponsorship moolah to improve everybody’s night, and promote progressive, world-healing ideas.
Even for as devout an anti-neoliberalist as myself, there are wider lessons to be learnt from this benevolent capitalist utopia. When Liz Truss, rather than cap and tax the profits of energy companies during this cost of living crisis, props them up by announcing what is essentially a £140 billion taxpayer handout to the oil barons, she thumbs her nose at anyone suggesting that capitalism should do anything but exploit the consumer. When talk arises of privatisation in any area – rail, essential services, the NHS – it’s always the shareholders’ interests at the heart of the (generally inadequate) bidders, not walking wallets like you and me.
Until something better happens to the British socio-political establishment (if it’s ever allowed to), Rock In Rio stands as a microcosmic model of a better way; a lush oasis of trickle-down economics, a city of extravagant experience where the punter is king. As you wander its neon boulevards and scenic walkways and admire the towering mountains framing the gargantuan wall of a main stage, it’s easy to ignore the branding if you’re assured it’s there for your benefit.
As much as Rock In Rio is the diametric opposite of Glastonbury’s green and pleasant hedonist hippie idyll, in its way it’s every bit as idealistic and magical, the summer’s pulsing neon bookend. Christ The Redeemer might look down from Mount Corcovado aghast at the sheer abandon of it, but – by God – Rio rocks.