Most film festivals will dot their documentary lineups with the occasional music-focused title or two; SXSW has an entire sidebar devoted to them. It makes perfect sense that, having sprung from the Austin-based event’s origins as a showcase for bands and the chance for college-radio D.J.s and rock journalists to drink a brewery’s worth of beer, the cinematic arm of South by Southwest would have added a “24 Beats Per Second” program early on in its existence. And while we’re certainly biased — see: the publication you’re currently reading — this peripheral collection of musician portraits, scene surveys, posthumous tributes to fallen artists and looks at all things rock/pop/jazz/hip-hop/etc.-adjacent has slowly starting eclipsing some of the festival’s bigger, more competitive main attractions.
And SXSW 2019 was no different. In fact, in our five years of covering the annual film fest via pre-show previews — and two years of being on the ground — this edition (which concludes on March 17th) has been one of the stronger years regarding the 24 Beats programming. Below are eight highlights from the sidebar that blew us away; we’re not counting Amazing Grace, as it’s played a few brief runs already (and will get an official release on April 5th) or Carmine Street Guitars, which we previously saw at Toronto and have already written about. (That one hits theaters on April 24th, and should be seen by any means necessary.)
Go down to Nashville, and you’ll find a small bar & restaurant nestled between a hair salon and a nail salon in a strip mall. Cozy doesn’t even begin to describe the space; claustrophobic might be more accurate. It used to be the sort of place that played host to the occasional rowdy roots-rock band, and racked up its share of noise complaints from the neighbors. (Forget it, Jake, it’s Nashville.) Then the owners decided to schedule a weekly “writer’s night” into the schedule — a place where local songwriters could show off their craft. Soon, folks were coming from far and wide to this little joint called the Bluebird Cafe to see tomorrow’s stars today. Some even showed up to audition for a slot on the open-mic nights; a lucky few — like, say, Garth Brooks and Taylor Swift and Faith Hill — made it through. It gained a reputation as a Music Row mecca. Then the TV show Nashville began turned singing at the Bluebird into a plot point, and all hell broke loose.
Brian Loschiavo’s portrait of a club could be subtitled “Everything You Wanted to Know About Ground Zero for Modern Country & Western/Americana Music But Were Afraid to Ask”; it’s a beautifully wonky look at a post-honkytonk hot spot that treated songwriters like kings and gave some of the folks behind the hits you love the spotlight. (Seeing Don Schlitz sing “The Gambler” feels like you’re watching a victory lap.) Everyone from Bluebird staff to big-name stars chime in, with folks like Jason Isbell and Maren Morris gracing the doc with some off-the-cuff performances. The look on a young girl’s face when T-Swift suddenly appears before her for an unannounced drop-in cameo is worth the price of admission alone.
The Boy Band Con: The Lou Pearlman Story
He started out by bilking folks out of their cash via ramshackle blimps before discovering that hey, the youngsters sure do like these New Kids on the Block fellas. So the Queens-born, Orlando-based entrepreneur Lou Pearlman decided to create his own version of a boy band, the Backstreet Boys; then, for good measure, he oversaw the formation of another one called NSYNC. You know what comes next: song-and-dance boot camps, rivalries, fame, fortune, TRL Live, a few other groups that come in on the wave of pop tunes and teen lust, shady dealings, Ponzi schemes and one incredibly precipitous rise and fall of one seriously fucked-up Svengali figure.
Directed by Aaron Kunkel and produced by none other than Lance Bass (which explains the numerous shots of him nodding at his mother while they discuss his childhood), The Boy Band Con is a surprisingly thorough indictment of how this music-industry party-crasher made millions off of those two bands yet still short-changed both groups. It also delves into some of the more disreputable rumors regarding his interest in having all of those young, sinewy bodies around his Florida compound (a few of the stories relayed by the talking-head interviewees will make you want to take a “Silkwood shower” ASAP). But it also doubles as an interesting look back at the boy-band phenomenon itself, as we can see the very beginnings of the wave and pinpoint the moment it begins to crest.
Boy Howdy: The CREEM Magazine Story
It had the gall to call itself “the only rock ‘n’ roll magazine in America” — we believe the kids today call this “trolling.” But if you grew up reading CREEM in the 1970s and ’80s, or cut your teeth in rock journalism by trying to emulate Dave Marsh and Lester Bangs, then you understand why it has left on major impact on What We Talk About When We Talk About Music. Scott Crawford’s doc is less a eulogy for the late, great Detroit rag than a rowdy wake, with past staffers and folks like Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith waxing poetic/profane about the publication’s legacy.
You leave with a sense of what a contradiction it all was: A magazine that helped female writers get their start yet ran demeaning pin-up photos of female rockers; a place that encouraged its writers to be fierce individuals but also turned its new office space into something close to a live-in commune; a place that helped forge a collective hard-rock canon yet was run by folks who couldn’t agree on anything. And the doc doesn’t shy away from how, in Bangs and founder Barry Kramer, the magazine even had their own self-destructive rock & roll martyrs. An incredible primer.
The Chills: The Triumph and Tragedy of Martin Phillipps
He was New Zealand’s great white musical hope, one of the best songwriters you’ve never heard of unless you were a serious devotee of the country’s scene. But Martin Phillipps and his band the Chills produced some of the most compelling postpunk of the 1980s and best moody, indie power pop of the 1990s (no, really, go back and listen to 1984’s “Pink Frost”). They won acclaim and awards. If only its resident genius didn’t keep alienating band members, indulging in substance abuse and generally keep shooting himself in the foot. Julia Parnell and Rob Curry’s balances archival footage of the singer and his band through at least three classic iterations — they’ve changed lineups more times than any band besides the Fall — with a look at the now-55-year-old singer as he deals with health issues and his own complicated past. This is what a living legend looks and sounds like.
The most heartbreaking doc in this program, Sebastian Jones and Ramez Silyan’s look at Lil Peep is more than just a live-fast-die-young epitaph for the deceased SoundCloud rapper. In fact, you couldn’t be blamed for fearing this might be just a compilation of facial tattoos and Fetanyl-tragedy stories. (Even with the “produced by Terrence Malick” credit — the filmmaker was good friends with the musician’s grandfather, who provides occasional voiceovers.) But thanks to a deft mix of home movies, interview segments with collaborators and concert clips, you get to see how this misfit kid quickly became a star. And you get to see a lifetime of pain managed to fuel both his art and his after-hours activities, none of which were helping him gain the stability he very clearly needed.
More importantly, however, is that the doc allows you to meet Gustav Elijah Åhr, the sensitive young man behind the stage name who was once a happy, extroverted Long Island boy before becoming a more introspective, depressed teen who found refuge in music. Ex-girlfriends and family members recall his first creative stirrings, his connection with D.I.Y. hip-hop and punk and how he hated to say “no” to anything — a problem that would allow him be taken advantage of by folks and make him feel profoundly alone even in a crowd. There are moments in the movie where you see the pink-haired, floppy-limbed singer turn on the high-wattage charm, and moments when you see the scared, psychologically scarred person behind the persona, someone who’s in desperate need of help. It’s a hard film to watch, and an even harder one to look away from. But it needs to be seen.
The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash
It was what his momma called that basso profundo voice of young J.R. “John” Cash, the glorious earth-shaking rumble he was blessed with after puberty: “The gift.” And given what the Arkansas native went through as a kid — you’ve seen Walk the Line — there was no way in hell he was going to let that divine present go to waste. Director Thom Zimny, who’s made more Springsteen docs than any man alive (he was responsible for those incredible making-of-album Bruce profiles The Promise and The Ties That Bind), takes on the life and work of the country-music standard-bearer, from his first Sun Records hits to the Folsom Prison Show, his lost-in-the-wilderness years to his Rick Rubin-produced comeback recordings. Both the Boss and the Zen Master with the Beard weigh in via offscreen testimonials, as do Cash’s children, some of his peers and longtime partners in crime, music historians and writers. But what really sells this work is the way the film uses the artist’s own words, via recorded conversations that he used as the backbone for an autobiography, to give you a peek inside a musician struggling to balance his faith and faults. A beautiful, lyrical look back at the Man in Black.
Once upon a time, a lad wandered into a movie theater in Tokyo and came across the concert movie The Song Remains the Same. He was fascinated this band named Led Zeppelin — and particularly struck by the group’s flamboyant guitarist. Listen: Maybe you really dig Jimmy Page. You still probably don’t love him as much as Akio Sakurai, who — flash-forward to years later — has transformed himself into “Mr. Jimmy,” a virtuoso who’s taught himself how to play every single song in the Zeppelin catalog. He obsessively replicates not just Page’s sound and fashion style (yes, of course he’s tailored his own Song-era dragon suit) but every single nuance of the bootlegged live performances as well; he can tell you the difference between a 1969 live version of Dazed and Confused and ’77 arrangement. Then one night Page comes into the club where the Japanese guitarist is doing his tribute act. The real deal compliments the fidelity to each bent note and one-off flourish. And in an instant, everything changes.
Most movies would treat this entire excursion down the superfan rabbit hole as a quirky study in eccentricity and end with this triumphant meeting of the student and his idol. Wisely, Peter Michael Dowd’s doc drops this exchange in at the 20-minute mark and then keeps following Sakurai as he relocates to L.A. in search of the ultimate Zep “revival” band. His goal: to stage a “fourth night” concert that plays off the band’s three-night stand at Madison Square Garden in 1973. Not everyone, however, is as zealous about the idea as he is. It’s a singular riff on identity, artistry, projection, passion and trying to inspire others to follow an impossible dream of second-hand perfection. Some distributor needs to pick this up immediately.
Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall
You know Jim Marshall’s work: That shot of Johnny Cash flipping the bird? That was his. The one of Janis Joplin slumped on the couch, Southern Comfort bottle cradled in her arms? Yup, that was his too. Those early Rolling Stone covers? Marshall did those as well. The man had a knack for being at the right place at the right time, like when the beatniks were hanging out in San Francisco’s North Beach; when jazz legends like John Coltrane and Miles Davis came through town; when a young Bob Dylan was bopping around Greenwich Village; when the Civil Rights movement and the anti-war movement were changing America; when the Bay Area became the ground zero for 1960s counterculture and the Beatles played their last show at Candlestick Park and Hendrix set Monterey Pop on fire.
Alfred George Bailey’s portrait of the famed photographer reminds you that Marshall didn’t just shoot some of the most iconic rock & roll pictures but chronicled the times he lived in. And it gives you an idea of what life was like for this Haight Ashbury hippie with anger issues, a mercurial man who was equally fascinated with peace signs and firearms (he did some time in prison) and a fiercely guarded tough guy who could get his subjects to open up in a way no one else could.