‘Coachella: 20 Years In The Desert’ review: a bittersweet reminder of the magic of music festivals

Stuffed with legendary performances, the new film tells the story of America's most glamorous party in a field

This weekend would’ve been Coachella‘s 21st outing in the Californian desert – a heady three days of banging tunes, sun-kissed celebrities and hazy good times. Unfortunately, coronavirus put paid to that and the 2020 edition of the festival will now take place in October (if we’re lucky). But to tide you over until then, YouTube Originals have released a documentary tracking the past 20 years of the West Coast extravaganza – from its first days on a polo field in Indio to the glitter-splashed all-American party we know now. While it may do little to soothe the pain of those who were meant to be there this month, for the rest of us, it serves as a timely portrait of the pure magic of music festivals.

Starting with the ill-advised gamble of taking fans three hours out into the desert for a Pearl Jam gig, 20 Years In The Desert opens on promoter Goldenvoice’s punk origins in Los Angeles. After detailing a customary early wobble, familiar to any budding festival organiser – the festival didn’t host a 2000 edition after its 1999 inception – the film goes on to explain how Coachella became the beast that it is today, successfully transferring the burgeoning European festival scene to the United States.


As well as taking us through the history of Coachella itself, the film also documents wider changes in the live music industry over the past two decades. For example, Daft Punk’s mind-blowing 2006 set signalled an increased reliance on production values at dance gigs, while Madonna‘s big top set in the same year heralded the addition of massive pop stars to festival bills everywhere. Coachella also followed Glastonbury’s example, booking their first rap headliner in Jay-Z, two years after he conquered the Pyramid Stage in 2008.

Daft Punk live at Coachella 2006. Credit: Getty

Despite its whirlwind story, the film’s true power undoubtedly comes from its impressive cinematography. Cameras crane across pastel blue skies and swoop down over huge crowds. It’s a stunning visualisation of the emotion at music festivals, whether it’s shedding tears in the front row to Billie Eilish in 2019 or witnessing an ‘I was there’ moment in real time at Daft Punk. 2020’s festival season might yet be a total wipeout, but Coachella: 20 Years In The Desert is a worthwhile substitute for now.


  • Director: Chris Perkel
  • Starring: Chali 2na, A-Trak, Steve Aoki
  • Release date: April 10