Even though it was delayed for over a year, the release of a documentary film about Central Washington’s Gorge Amphitheatre — a film about music and the sheer joy of togetherness — seems right on time after all. “Enormous: The Gorge Story” opens July 21 at area theaters, including Vancouver’s Kiggins and Camas’ Liberty, in what’s expected to be a short run.
“We’ve all been through a hell of a year,” said director Nic Davis during a telephone interview. “To be able to come back out and celebrate this place we all love and haven’t been able to go to — it’s kind of a unique window, to be able to go to the theater again and watch this film with people.”
“Enormous” is a loving, rocking, quick-cutting tribute to the unlikeliest of all concert venues: an outdoor amphitheater and adjacent campground nestled into a hot, dry, forbidding landscape that’s truly out in the middle of nowhere.
It takes two-and-a-half hours to drive to the Gorge Amphitheatre from Seattle. It’s a taxing four-and-a-half hour haul from Vancouver. The nearest town — the tiny, cutely named George, Washington — is still about 10 miles away from the venue, where there’s nothing to eat except what you bring (or buy at festival prices) and nowhere to stay except your own tent.
But that’s part of what people love about the far-flung place, singer-songwriter Jason Mraz says in the film: Venturing across mountains and deserts to hear their favorite stars gives rock ’n’ roll pilgrims the feeling they’ve really accomplished something.
“You’re not just going to a show and going home that night,” Davis said. “You’re putting your time into planning and camping and joining a big Gorge community. It’s an alternate environment. Every concert weekend is like a festival.”
And then there’s that spectacular desert-canyon backdrop to every show. “There’s something so enormous and endless about this place,” singer-songwriter and Gorge regular Dave Matthews says in the film.
“I’m going to play everything I know, even if I have to stay here all night,” legendary singer Smokey Robinson is quoted in the film. “Because, this just ain’t no normal gig.”
Today’s Gorge Amphitheatre started out in 1985 as a risky winery venture by Dr. Vincent Bryan and Carol Bryan, New Yorkers who moved west knowing nothing about the local landscape.
“A neurosurgeon from Brooklyn and his wife,” Davis said. “No experience in entertainment. They wanted to try a winery.”
That’s how the Bryans wound up with a leftover patch of rough, rocky land that no local farmers wanted. Most thought the Bryans had lost their minds, but the couple persevered on their new sagebrush landscape. When their opening day invitation drew over a thousand RSVPs, the Bryans realized they should offer more than wine. At the last minute, they scrambled to build a small music stage and cut some modest stadium-style seating terraces into the landscape.
That first batch of wine was terrible, Vincent Bryan recalls with a laugh in the film. But the outdoor music experience was so magical, their visitors demanded, “When’s the next show?”
The Bryans started negotiating with entertainment agencies and concert promoters. They wound up launching what was then called Champs de Brionne Summer Music Theater, and reaching high as they could for their inaugural act: Bob Dylan.
Dylan’s Aug. 20, 1988, concert at the Summer Music Theater demonstrated just how successful — and how challenging — the venture could be. With high hopes and no idea what to expect, promoters just kept selling tickets without any limit. In the end, 17,000 people showed up and overwhelmed the inadequate venue staff. While there were lots of crowd- and camper-control problems — like people bathing and washing their dishes in irrigation ditches — the Dylan concert proved that the venue itself could be a major, successful draw.
But performers also found the Gorge a tough gig in those earliest days, rocker Steve Miller says. Traffic was terrible on unpaved roads. Equipment got dirty. Toilets didn’t work. The filmmakers told The Columbian that they shot footage and heard stories about the amphitheater’s earliest challenges and neighborhood conflicts, but didn’t include those in their film.
“All of a sudden … hospitals are flooded, infrastructure is not there, tens of thousands of people are showing up,” said producer Tim Williams. “We explored those elements but they didn’t seem to fit into the structure of the film.”
That structure goes all the way from a glimpse of the Gorge’s dramatic geologic origins, to interviews with talents like Matthews and Mike McCready of Pearl Jam, to the stories of just plain folks whose lives were changed by the evolving, expanding concert venue.
Concert photographer Darren Balch found his calling and met his wife at the Gorge. Lifelong music lover Pat Coats, a loyal Dave Matthews concertgoer with her beloved sister, eventually scattered her sister’s ashes there.
“That’s my favorite thing about this,” Williams said. “The people we interviewed had such interesting stories. That idea extrapolates to thousands of different stories. Millions of people have gone to the venue over the years, everybody’s been affected by it.”
The Bryans sold the venue long ago, but they are still nearby, operating Cave B Estate Winery. On their website, they say visitors often congratulate them for their good fortune in starting their winery alongside the world-famous Gorge Amphitheatre.
Even though it’s stuffed with interviews and musical snippets, “Enormous” clocks in at just over one hour. So much worthy material didn’t fit their tight structure, the filmmakers said, they also pieced together five brief “Enormisodes” of bonus material, to screen after the main feature: additional interviews, musical selections, a blooper reel and even a deeper dive into the geologic history of the site by Nick (“On the Rocks”) Zentner, a popular geology speaker and professor at Central Washington University.
“It’s another story, but the geology of that area is so fascinating,” Davis said.