SXSW Music Docs: Britpop Reunions, Post-Alt Road Trips, Blues Survivors
By Ron Deutsch
South by Southwest began in 1987 as an effort by the local Austin music scene to promote itself nationally and offer a more laid-back alternative music conference to NYC's New Music Seminar, which had become both unwieldy and violent. At that first SXSW, there were 172 bands and 700 registrants. The film festival/conference came on board in 1994. By 1997, the festival showed over 100 feature films, and attendance was near 10,000. In 2013, with over 2,200 official musical acts (and seemingly as many or more playing unofficial showcases) and over 130 feature films, there were easily over 100,000 people who came and went to at least one official SXSW event. This year, attendance was even higher (exact numbers haven't been released as this article went to press).
Meanwhile, over the same two-and-a-half decades, Austin's notoriety has grown and its population has doubled to over 840,000. And while both the national media attention and mega-corporate branding have brought millions of dollars into the city over the 10-day yearly enterprise, it has also wrought a growing chorus of those nostalgic for the simpler days when you could easily get into screenings and duck in and out of venues to hear a potpourri of unsigned bands. The weight of all this growth and change seemed, for many, to reach its tipping point this year with the tragic deaths of three people and over 20 injured when a drunken festival attendee, at the wheel of a stolen car, sought to evade police by driving into the heart of the festival.
The following day, SXSW Managing Director Roland Swenson stated, "As much as we would like to just go home and spend time absorbing the shock of this horrific event, we feel our best use is to continue to operate today." And so, we all continued to operate, yet with a cloud hovering over the event that never really dissipated.
This year there were no break-out documentaries focused on music or other forms of entertainment, as there were last year with 20 Feet from Stardom, Sound City and Muscle Shoals. However, there were some that rose above the others.
Pulp, directed by German-New Zealand director Florian Habicht (Love Story, 2011), succeeds as not just another vanity documentary of a band, by focusing on various characters in Sheffield, England, where the Britpop band Pulp were preparing to play their final reunion show in 2012, 34 years after they first formed there. The band-perhaps most famous for their song "Common People"-has both entertained and inspired its hometown fans, from the portly senior citizen news vendor in the film to a troubled Millennial transsexual. There are, of course, interviews with band members, as well as footage from the show. But Habicht also serves up some very nice set pieces, including one featuring members of a senior a cappella group seated Hopper-esquely at a diner, singing Pulp's "Help the Aged." Pulp lead singer Jarvis Cocker noted in the post-film Q&A, "Even though I haven't lived in Sheffield for some time, I thought the film did a good job in depicting a part of the city that is disappearing." Indeed, the indoor market where Cocker once worked as a fish monger, and where the a cappella diner sequence was filmed, is now gone.
If there was a "Most Clever Concept" documentary award at SXSW, it should have gone to American Interior. Part road film, part concert film and part history film, American Interior invites us along in what singer/songwriter/director Gruff Rhys (also a member of post-alternative rock group Super Furry Animals) calls an "Investigative Concert Tour." This is the second such "ICT"; the first, 2010's Superado!, set Rhys on an adventure to find his lost long Patagonian uncle, musician René Griffiths. In this outing, Rhys follows the route traveled by his distant relative, John Evans, who came to America in 1792 in search of a mythical lost tribe of Welsh-speaking Native Americans. Evans wound up leading a Spanish expedition in search of the Northwest Passage (Lewis & Clark used his maps for their first 100 days), then defended America's northern border from English incursion (that North Dakota is America and not Canada is thanks to Evans), and eventually died of malaria in a New Orleans jail cell. At stops along the way, and shot in "glorious" black and white, Rhys performs a one-man show to audiences (with Powerpoint presentation) of Evans' journey. He also stops to interview historians, descendants of Native Americans whom Evans had befriended, and a wacky cemetery tour guide in New Orleans. And as Rhys learns more of his relative's adventures, he composes and then performs songs based on each chapter of Evans' life. By the journey's end, Rhys has completed an album, this documentary film, and an interactive desktop/mobile app so you can go online to learn more and watch in-depth interviews. And we shouldn't forget to mention Evans' three-foot felt puppet, who becomes Rhys' travel companion.
Supermensch is a loving tribute, well-directed by actor Mike Myers, to his friend Shep Gordon. Gordon came to California in the 1960s, fresh out of college, to find work as a probation officer. Instead he wound up in an apartment complex in Los Angeles whose other occupants included Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. Gordon became a manager at Hendrix's suggestion and signed his first client, the then nearly-impossible-to-book Alice Cooper. Once achieving fame and success for Cooper, he soon had an eclectic string of clients, including Blondie, Teddy Pendergrass and Groucho Marx. Gordon then starting Alive Pictures, which produced such films as Hector Babenco's Kiss of the Spider Woman and the John Carpenter classic They Live. After meeting superstar chef Roger Vergé, Gordon became his apprentice, but eventually found himself managing a roster of star chefs, including Emeril Lagasse and Mario Batali. The film also relishes in Gordon's many sexual conquests, including affairs with Playboy models and actress Sharon Stone, as well as his spiritual quest and friendship with the Dalai Lama. In the hands of someone other than Myers, Supermensch might have delved more into the darker side of life as a mega-celebrity manager, which is sometimes hinted at in the film. Nevertheless, it is an enjoyable romp through the life of one self-admitted lucky fellow.
In Johnny Winter: Down & Dirty, producer/director Greg Olliver (Lemmy) takes audiences on the road with the 70-year-old albino Texas blues legend. Starting out playing honky-tonks around Beaumont, Texas, Winter rose to worldwide recognition. Unlike his dear friends Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, Winter managed to survive the '60s without dying, but caught a nasty heroin/methadone habit he couldn't shake. By the early 2000s, Winter weighed under 100 lbs, could barely play or talk, and was being manipulated and cheated by his manager. The film begins with an introduction to the hero of the tale, Paul Nelson. Known as a "guitarist's guitarist," he idolized Winter. When Nelson discovered what had happened to his idol, he stepped in and took over management duties. He devised a way to get Winter off drugs and alcohol over the next few years-and it's like a rebirth. Today, Winter is back on his game, and surrounded by people who love and care for him. Olliver smartly balances his film with both current and classic performance clips of Winter, including from the original Woodstock festival, and giving Nelson the well-deserved props for his miracle-working. As the film nears its end, Olliver asks Winter why audiences should see the film. Winter replies, "I always like stories about people that drink and have drug problems and women problems. It's just interesting." But then he acknowledges this film is one of the rare cases where such stories end well.
Song from the Forest begins in the jungles of the Central African Republic as German journalist and first-time director Michael Obert introduces us to Louis Sarno. Sarno, a New Yorker, first heard the music of the Bayaka tribe over the radio in 1978 and became obsessed to the point where he wound up living among them for over 30 years. During that time, he married a Bayaka woman, fathered a son and amassed the largest recorded collection of Pygmy music in history. We learn that Sarno had promised his son, Samadi, that one day he would take him to see the world. Obert tracks father and son, now ten years old, out of the African jungle and into the concrete jungle of Manhattan for a vacation, where Sarno hangs out with his old friend, filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, and takes the boy shopping for toys (though in one of the few revealing moments of how Samadi views the outside world, he sulks because he'd rather his father buy him a real gun, not a toy one). According to Obert, since war broke out in the CAR in 2012, Sarno may well be the only white man left in the country.
In The Case of the Three-Sided Dream, first-time filmmaker Adam Kahan takes his love of jazz multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk and turns it into a very likable documentary. Kirk is still considered somewhat underrated because many saw his multi-instrumentality as a gimmick. Through interviews with family members and fellow musicians, but also through Kirk's music and recorded words, Kahan paints an impressive portrait of the blinded-at-birth jazz artist. For example, in the mid-1960s, Kirk organized a group of jazz musicians and lovers to protest the lack of jazz on television by infiltrating the audience of The Dick Cavett Show one evening. Kirk and friends then broke out whistles and blew them loudly, forcing the broadcast to be cut. The protest worked, however, and network executives gave Kirk a slot on The Ed Sullivan Show. Kirk suffered a stroke in 1975, and passed away two years later.
The SXSW Audience Award in the "24 Beats a Second" category, created to "showcase the sounds, culture & influence of music & musicians, with an emphasis on documentary," went to Take Me to the River. Directed by film producer and musician Martin Shore in his first directorial outing, the documentary brings together legendary Mississippi Delta blues and soul performers with some of today's roster of rap singers, and southern rockers The North Mississippi All-Stars. Sadly, the fact that several of the older performers passed away during the film's production only emphasized how much more satisfying Shore's film would have been if he had just let them play on their own, without trying to mash them up with musicians who may only ever dream of matching their elders' accomplishments and stature.
And now, as the out-of-towners depart and the pop-up stages are put away, attention will turn to the City of Austin and the SXSW producers who must begin the task of trying to understand the causes of this year's tragedy, and what they need to do to prevent such tragedies from ever occurring again.
Ron Deutsch is a contributing editor to Documentary Magazine. He has written for many publications including National Geographic, Wired, San Francisco Weekly, and The Austin American-Statesman. He is currently associate producing the documentary Record Man, about the post-war music industry, and lives in Austin, Texas, with his trusty cat, Miles.