Longtime attendees of the annual South by Southwest festival may not have recognized their host city this year. There are so many closed-off roads and buildings in various stages of construction and destruction these days, visitors could be forgiven for thinking they’d accidentally deplaned in Beirut rather than Austin, Texas. Even assuming they were able to navigate the crumbling streets, many SXSW vets must have been scratching their heads while reading the list of venues for this year’s music showcases. Even year-round residents had to think twice when confronted with first-time SXSW sites like the Drink on 6th or the Rainbow Cattle Company.
Once the festivities kicked into high gear, however, it became clear that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The annual Austin Music Awards still reigned as the kickoff event, more crowded than ever this year thanks to the presence of Lucinda Williams on the bill. Williams debuted three new songs from her upcoming album Essence and finished her too-brief set with a crowd-pleasing rendition of "Joy" from the acclaimed Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Out-of-towners may have been puzzled by the enthusiastic response to the previously unknown band 86’d, but longtime Austinites recognized the act as a supergroup comprised of members from now-defunct local bands of 80’s vintage, including Glass Eye and the True Believers. While Sandra Bullock beau Bob Schneider reaped the lion’s share of awards, cult favorites The Gourds proved the heart and soul of old Austin still thrives somewhere under the towering construction cranes with their brief but satisfying set.
While the past several years have been marred by inclement weather, sunshine was the rule rather than the exception in 2001, making outdoor performances particularly welcome. Though plagued by occasional sound problems, an open-air show in Waterloo Park featuring country stars Charlie Robison and Kasey Chambers drew an impressive crowd (the fact that it was free to the public didn’t hurt). One of the more off-the-beaten-path venues, the Texas Union Theater at the University of Texas campus, featured a rousing showcase for acoustic acts, including local favorites Asylum Street Spankers and frequent visitor Hammel on Trial, whose machine gun-style guitar attacks were as ferocious as ever following a recent car accident. Other highlights of the week included a smoky, spooky set by blues rocker Johnny Dowd and an irreverent twangy turn by the Mekons’ Sally Timms.
Days before the first band plugged in, however, the film portion of SXSW was well underway, kicking off this year with the first annual Texas Film Hall of Fame awards (an event co-sponsored by SXSW with the Austin Film Society, among others). The ceremony was held at the newly opened Austin Studios, a makeshift production facility comprised of a handful of former airplane hangars at the recently closed Robert Mueller airport. Honorees included Sissy Spacek, screenwriter Bill Witliff and gossip columnist Liz Smith, and notables on hand to make induction speeches ranged from the witty, eloquent Ann Richards to the rambling, self-infatuated Quentin Tarantino. A few kinks need to be worked out if this planned annual event is to become a success (airplane hangar acoustics, for one), and the ceremony morphed into the SXSW opening night party, complete with live music from Asleep at the Wheel, not a minute too soon.
As for the films selected to screen this year, the focus was not so much on big names and upcoming releases (though buzz flicks Memento and Blow drew long lines as did an unscheduled sneak peek at Richard Linklater’s Sundance hit Waking Life), but rather the fruit that advances in digital video have borne. While a handful of narrative features made use of this technology (including the Zellner Brothers’ very bizarre midnight movie, Frontier), the festival made it clear that it is the non-fiction form that stands to reap the most benefits from cheaper, higher quality video equipment. What follows is a rundown of the standout documentaries from SXSW 2001.
Karaoke Fever – The 1999 arthouse hit Hands On A Hard Body provided a near-foolproof template for crafting an involving non-fiction feature: quirky real-life characters participating in a contest of elimination. (In Hard Body, whoever keeps one hand on a brand-new Nissan truck the longest gets to drive it home.) It’s the same compelling equation that keeps Survivor at the top of the network ratings, and it works like a charm in Karaoke Fever as well. By turns hilarious and oddly touching, this portrait of a handful of participants in the Southern California karaoke finals neither condescends to its subjects nor turns a blind eye to their idiosyncrasies. Everyone will have a favorite, from the mismatched rapping duo of Eric and "Monkey" to the physically debilitated L.C. to the Sinatra doppleganger Vaughn Suponatime. The production values are rough, but the drama is rock solid.
No Early Birds – Another doc that invites comparison to Hands on a Hard Body, not in terms of the competition angle but rather for its focus on Texas eccentrics. The Austin yard sale scene (yes, apparently there is such a thing) is the setting, and the participants range from laid-back slacker Dale to hotheaded thrift shop proprietor Roxanne. A window onto a subculture most of us only glimpse in passing while purchasing a second-hand lamp, No Early Birds is fresh and funny, and even features a few helpful hints for the budding yard sailor.
Caesar’s Park – Sarah Price assisted Chris Smith on his acclaimed 1999 doc American Movie, and Smith returns the favor in Price’s look at her Milwaukee neighbors. An essentially plot-free meditation on loneliness and the loss of the classic American neighborhood, Price’s film mines some of the same territory as Smith’s – and while never quite as absorbing or explosively hilarious, it does match the earlier work in terms of poignancy and sheer fascination with skewed characters.
Down From the Mountain – Among the chief pleasures of O Brother, Where Art Thou? is the glorious soundtrack put together by the Coen Brothers and their musical director T-Bone Burnett. Many of the artists who contributed songs to the movie got together last summer in Nashville for a benefit concert, which was filmed by legendary documentarian D.A. Pennebaker. That footage became Down From the Mountain, one of the rare concert films that successfully erases the distance between viewing audience and onscreen performers. Pennebaker and his crew were granted extraordinary access to the stage to shoot the proceedings, and the result is an intimate showcase for, among others, Ralph Stanley ("O Death"), Alison Krauss ("Down in the River to Pray") and the Cox Family ("I Am Weary"). The most notable omission – the Soggy Bottom Boys performing "Man of Constant Sorrow." In a Q & A session, Pennebaker explained that the live performance of the song was so bad, the Coens prevailed upon him to leave it out of the movie.