Saturday night, my Twitter feed having filled up with the hashtag #beychella and a link to a live feed of Beyoncé Knowles' Coachella debut being offered, I went in, out of interest, and stayed out of — what? "Admiration" would be too weak a word, "astonishment" would underrate a performer who habitually sets the bar high and clears it. Anyway, there was no question of turning it off, leaving my chair or glancing away.
I used to attend Coachella in the perspiring flesh when single-day tickets were still sold and the crowds were half what they've become. This time, I watched in the room where I write, on the screen on which these words are appearing as I type. (They are no Beyoncé.) Yet it was very much an emotional, visceral, virtually communal experience. (My wife was watching over my shoulder; I was in an actual audience of two.)
Coachella livestreams much of what it puts onstage. The festival reliably sells out both its identical weekends; offering the rest of the world a window onto the grounds during its first weekend costs nothing in sales, and only increases the cachet of the event. There is a kind of public service element too, if you want to be generous about the promoters' intentions. Not everyone can manage or afford to go to Coachella, the only festival where these sorts of major statements are likely to take place. But most everyone who would want to can click into the feed.
"Historical" is a word that has been been much used to describe this performance, before and after the fact. (And it was, literally: "Coachella, thank you for allowing me to be the first black woman to headline," the singer said, as if she had been a supplicant and not in fact the prize.) Had this been an ordinary television broadcast, commercials would have preceded it for months; billboards would have told you when and where to tune in. You would have had to cover your ears and eyes in order not to know it was happening.
As it is, they will be watching Saturday's performance in 5,000 years if anyone is around to watch it and eyes are still a thing. But seeing it in real time, even if not in the real space, mattered. Far from the event, there was still a sense of occasion, of a shared moment in a shared space — and much of this had to do with the quality of the camerawork and the intelligence of the direction.
When Martin Scorsese put a camera on tracks in 1976 to shoot "The Last Waltz," it felt like nothing we'd seen in a concert film. But successful innovations become bad habits.
Typically, nowadays, the camera and cutting create the action when live music is put onscreen — zooming in, zooming out, zipping from one side of the stage to another, from the back of the room to the front, like a Go-Pro attached to a flying monkey, never lingering on any shot more than a few songs. This has become a kind of standard, sadly; it has become the way we understand that something is exciting. (Admittedly, not every pop act gives you much to look at.)
Or it can be underdone — "camera one, camera two, move in camera three" sort of direction, duly recording an event without supporting or amplifying it, without getting to the heart of what makes it beautiful. And to be sure, often what the camera reports is strong enough to speak for itself. But a brilliant performance can also be dimmed by poor camerawork or dull direction. Many artists commemorate concerts or concert tours; few are much to look at.
None of this was the case with Beyoncé's Saturday set.
Like a Superbowl halftime show, or an Olympics opening ceremony, the performance was staged both for the crowd on the field and the crowd watching remotely. And if not every angle, move and cut was arranged beforehand, the key moments had clearly been mapped for maximum effect. (By her own people, I would assume, and not Coachella's.) Nothing else I've seen streaming from the festival has had, visually, the same level of organization, intention or sensitivity — indeed few concert films are up to the level this achieved, seemingly on the fly .
It began with a tracking shot — out on the walkway that extended onto the field — moving forward to a close up of one of her female drummers, forward again as dancers gave way to reveal the star as Egyptian queen, and then backward as they processed to the stage. The camera knew where to be and when to be there; one never felt something essential was being missed. When the camera moved, it was for a reason — to follow the action, not to stand in for it.
It was a spectacle but a spectacle made up primarily of humans doing spectacular things, individually, in combination and in unison. (The rest was mostly done with lights.) From afar, you could make out individuals in a yellow-clad cast of musicians and dancers reported to number 100; close up, you could watch individual strands of the star's crimped hair borne aloft on the Coachella Valley breeze. Shots of her out on the runway, in the midst of the moving crowd, had the clarity and detail and implied scale (even on a mid-sized computer monitor) of an 18th century history painting, where many smaller stories play out within and alongside a bigger one. As befits a performer who seems at once more than human and only human, it was at once grand and intimate, powerful and empowering.
I'm glad I was there, even from here.
(There will be no Coachella livestream during the festival's second weekend, but SirisuXM will be broadcasting through April 25.)