Final Musings On SXSW


OK, I can believe that it’s been 25 years of SXSW music and 20 years for its film Ffestival, but 20 for the Interactive component as well? Damn! It’s a long way from the advent of CD-ROMs to Twitter and Foursquare, and the formal attendance for Interactive has ballooned from 4,000 to 25,000 in the last decade alone. Would you believe that the interactive conference had more than 800 panels? I personally found more solace in the film fest, where the 24 Beats Per Second category premiered several worthwhile music documentaries including Muscle Shoals, 20 Feet From Stardom, A Band Called Death and Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius Of James Booker.

Muscle Shoals illuminates the role of producer Rick Hall and his FAME Studios, which in turn begat the Swampers, a group of white Southern musicians who played on classic soul tracks by Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge and many others. Much like the Funk Brothers in Detroit and the Wrecking Crew in L.A., the Swampers—from the little town of Muscle Shoals, Ala.—played on umpteen radio hits during the 1960s and 1970s. Hell, the Swampers even toured as part of Steve Winwood’s band Traffic, but were best known for being world-class studio guys. This is history, people!

A Band Called Death is a heartwarming tale about an obscure Detroit group from the 1970s comprised of the three Hackney brothers—black, religious and playing unconventional, uncompromising proto-punk/black rock that had remained obscure until a recent Death revival and reunion, mostly spurred by geeky record collectors and Drag City’s release of the band’s original 1974 demos. Check out those killer recordings!

The Tragic Genius Of James Booker speaks for itself. A brilliant, erratic New Orleans musician of the highest order, James Booker was the best drug-addicted, one-eyed, homosexual piano player to ever come out of the Crescent City. Testimonials from Dr. John, Allen Toussaint and even Harry Connick Jr. will convince you, if the extended footage of Booker playing like a goddamned Black Liberace doesn’t grab you first.

Ironically, I found the most inspiration from Good Vibrations, a dramatic film depicting the ups and downs of a real-life character, Terri Hooley. Hooley was a rough-and-tumble music fanatic in Ireland who opened a freaking record store in strife-ridden 1970s Belfast. When kids started coming in asking for the punk records they heard on John Peel’s radio show, Hooley was quickly reborn, releasing the first punk singles in Ireland (including the Outcasts and the Undertones) on his Good Vibrations label. Discovered by the likes of Peel and then Seymour Stein and Sire Records, Hooley did well for the punk community but not always himself. Don’t miss the big benefit concert scene where Hooley’s character (played by Richard Dormer) comes out to lead the hall full of punks in a rousing, beer-drinking version of Sonny Bono’s 1965 solo single, “Laugh At Me.” Although unrecognized at the time, Bono’s contrived, Dylan-esque song of counterculture alienation had somehow been transformed into a true punk anthem, and has remained so ever since—check out the brooding, bruising version on Mott The Hoople’s first LP if you don’t believe me. Or Terri Hooley.

—Mitch Myers

SXSW Report: The Film Festival, Part Two

MAGNET’s Mitch Myers files a third and final round of notes from SXSW.

SXSW 2012 has concluded, and there were some films that stayed with me—narratives and documentaries with magical, elusive qualities. Filmmaker Rebecca Thomas’ debut, Electrick Children, is the tale of a 15-year-old Utah girl in a fundamentalist community who claims to have been impregnated immaculately after listening to a forbidden cassette tape of rock ‘n’ roll. The mysterious song in the film is actually power-pop trio the Nerves’ version of “Hanging On The Telephone” (later covered by Blondie), but the movie is about truth and freedom, and Rory Culkin is superb as the disaffected Las Vegas thrasher who helps resolve the mystery. Another piece of magical realism is Safety Not Guaranteed, starring Parks And Recreation’s Aubrey Piaza as a junior reporter assigned to answer a personal ad from an odd man looking for someone to go back in time with. Obviously, safety is not guaranteed, but there is soft humor, gentle romance, and an appropriately dramatic ending.

Documentary Beauty Is Embarrassing focuses on visual artist Wayne White, who’s built sets for Pee-wee’s Playhouse and props for Smashing Pumpkins and Peter Gabriel videos. Odds are you’ve never heard of White, but know (and love) his insane contributions to popular culture. Sadly, the new Sunset Strip documentary provides a limp historical arc on this infamous L.A. roadway, and the legendary rock excess, glamour, influence and decadence of the mile-and-a-half Strip is captured better elsewhere.

Two of the most powerful films I saw were about teenaged girls compelled to go against their better judgments; Compliance is a disturbing “true” story about a naive fast-food cashier accused of stealing by a mysterious caller who claims to be a police detective and conducts his “investigation” over the phone, directing the cashier and her fellow employees from afar. On the flip side, and filmed on completely camera phones, King Kelly is about a nasty girl with a highly sexualized presence on YouTube who webcams everything and manipulates everybody until a bad drug deal leads to an even more dubious and dangerous scenario—and, of course, she’s the one who ends up being manipulated.

Booster is a story of sacrifice and loyalty on the part of a goodhearted guy who shoplifts for a living, doing everything for others until his no-good brother get arrested and raises the stakes of the game right when he’s met a decent girl and can see a way out. And finally, The Do-Deca Pentathlon is a saga of two estranged brothers whose childhood rivalry is revived in 30-something adulthood and can only be settled with a ridiculous series of skill competitions—all done in not-so-total secrecy during a convoluted family reunion. See it!

SXSW Report: The Film Festival, Part One

MAGNET’s Mitch Myers files a second round of notes from SXSW.

For some folks, SXSW is considered the frat boy of film fests: loud, raucous and unruly with midnight showings of action, horror and other genre flicks as well as music movies, indie narratives and obscure documentaries. Of course, there’s also insider deals with big-budget production companies and famous filmmakers, resulting in high-profile premieres of mainstream movies like 21 Jump Street or the super-scary Cabin In The Woods.

Anytime local hero Richard Linklater is ready to debut a new film, the SXSW team is happy to oblige. This year that film was Bernie, an East Texas tale starring Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey. This “true story” revolves around a small-town killing in which the self-confessed murderer is so well liked and the victim so reviled that the townsfolk root actually for an acquittal. Black is extraordinarily well cast in a role where he’s required to both sing and act dramatically as the dark comedic nature of this excellent film slowly unfolds around him.

And please don’t believe the negative reviews of the new Will Farrell movie, Casa De Mi Padre, which was made to look as cheesy and absurd as possible and is spoken completely in Spanish. Farrell doesn’t even speak the language, so his lines were all learned and acted by rote. The filmmakers are subversive Saturday Night Live writers, and their high camp farce allows the likes of Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal to completely indulge in their stereotypical roles. This hilarious parody is clearly destined to achieve cult status. Too bad it’s going to lose a lot of money first.

Paul Williams Is Still Alive and Beware Of Mr. Baker are both music documentaries created by young filmmakers overly enamored with their subjects: ’70s songwriter/performer Paul Williams and legendary rock drummer Ginger Baker, respectively. Drug and alcohol addictions notwithstanding, the two musicians couldn’t be more different, but these films are strangely similar. If you like these artists you’ll probably like these films, but even if you don’t, you shouldn’t miss the amazing footage of Baker in Africa playing drums with Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s band in 1970. (As opposed to Williams schmoozing Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show or appearing on an episode of The Love Boat.)

The action-packed The Raid: Redemption isn’t based on a video game, but it should be. A small group of law officers are compelled to storm a big apartment building completely occupied by violent bad guys—fighting their way in and then out of the massive structure floor-by-floor. Good thing one of the heroes happens to be a martial-arts expert! With dizzying choreography and increasingly dramatic fight scenes, this is one nonstop thrill ride and, the grand finale battle royale is almost as cool as Bruce Lee facing off against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in The Game Of Death.

SXSW Report: 76 Guitars (Is The Boss Performing “The Music Man” In Austin?)

MAGNET’s Mitch Myers files a round of notes from SXSW.

It’s day six in Austin, and synergy at SXSW is off the scale as the film, music and interactive conferences are blending into one immense industry party. Jay-Z’s exclusive gig at Austin City Limits is just another memory, and SXSW attendees are already looking for the next big surprise gig. The hottest rumor is now focusing on Bruce Springsteen, who will be giving the music fest’s keynote address on Thursday.

Springsteen’s publicity machine is in high gear, as the Jersey rocker has been ubiquitous, appearing at the Grammys, pushing new album Wrecking Ball and touring with the E Street Band. It’s already been confirmed that the Boss and his band had a private rehearsal in Asbury Park and a surprise show in Austin is in the works.

What has the Bruce fans (and everyone else) all a-twitter about his keynote speech is the possibility of yet another announcement: that Springsteen and the E Street Band are preparing to perform a version of 1961 musical film The Music Man, with Springsteen reprising the role of Harold Hill, Patty Sciafa playing Marian the librarian and Little Steven as Hill’s sidekick, Marcellus Washburn.

Based on the 1957 Broadway musical of the same name, this classic American music fable seems made to order for the Boss, and people are getting excited. “It’s Bruce’s way of helping to bring the country back together,” says one longtime fan.

While prospects of Springsteen embodying this slice of weird old Americana are enticing—singing songs like “Ya Got Trouble (Right Here In River City)” and the epic “76 Trombones”—it’s the special-guest component that’s made to order here in Austin. State favorites like the Dixie Chicks would be well cast to sing “Pick-A-Little, Talk-A-Little,” and Springsteen’s old No Nukes buddies Crosby Stills And Nash, along with Jackson Browne, could take on the Barbershop Quartet duties singing “Goodnight Ladies.” Springsteen’s touring pal Alejandro Escovedo has his entire Austin orchestra available, and actor Jack Black, who’s in town pushing new movie Bernie, may make a cameo as Mayor George Shinn. One Springsteen insider insists that “the whole idea came from Bruce really wanting to hear Little Steven sing ‘Shipoopi,’ and it just grew from there.”

There’s even a possibility of the event being filmed, and Little Steven’s Underground Garage would be likely to simulcast the show on Sirius Radio. It’s unclear whether the Boss will be changing the musical’s setting from River City to Jersey City, but there’s definitely a push to change the big finale to “76 Guitars.”