SXSW: Music and Film’s Rockin’ Love Affair

Every year Austin's Longhorn kiddies go off to Cancun during spring break, soaking up the Corona over loops of "Pour Some Sugar On Me" and "Paradise City." And that’s when thousands of musicians, filmmakers, techies, business execs and pop-culture lovers descend on the capital of Texas for South by Southwest, a 10-day music, film and technology festival. This year, for SXSW's 20th anniversary, more than 16,000 people hit the "Live Music Capital of the World" to catch at least some of the nearly 1,500 bands (up from 172 in 1987) that played on 64 stages. Or to see some of the 220 films screened at seven theaters, or to attend one of the 223 panel discussions. Austin's legendary Sixth Street is blocked off for the party, and at the end of each night, overstimulated attendees stumble back to their hotel rooms with achy bodies and ringing ears.

Last week I made it through four and a half days. Seven films and 13 bands later, I was barely functioning, but one thing was clear through the haze: music and film are having a hot and heavy affair. You already knew that from such mainstream films as “Ray,” “Walk the Line,” “Beyond the Sea,” “Rent,” “The Producers” and “Chicago.” There's a surge in rockumentaries, too: “No Direction Home: Bob Dylan,” “End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones” or “DiG!” (about The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre). But at SXSW, you could not only watch 26 music-tinged films, you could also catch up with some of the onscreen musicians at in-the-flesh gigs.

Neil Young and Jonathan Demme kicked last Thursday off with a conversation about “Neil Young: Heart of Gold,” Demme’s film documenting Young's two-day performance last year at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, the revered former home of the Grand Ole Opry. "I started harassing him about a year ago," said Demme during the hour-long chat. Then, after an aneurysm sent Young to the hospital last April, the singer had a change of heart. In between footage of Young singing songs from his album "Prairie Wind," Demme interspersed interviews with Young's pals, including Emmylou Harris and steel guitarist Ben Keith. “Heart of Gold” is playing at select theaters around the country.

Young wasn't the only veteran to make an appearance at SXSW: Morrissey, the Beastie Boys, and Ray Davies of the Kinks also came to town. Thursday was Morrissey’s day: at 11 a.m., a screening of “Viva Morrissey,” a short about how Los Angeles Latinos have embraced the moody British singer in all his sarcasm and forlornness. A couple of hours later, Morrissey sat with Rolling Stone's David Fricke on a convention-center podium where the 46-year-old rocker mouthed off about how boring Joy Division has always been, how ridiculous politics in the world are and how he and his former bandmates turned down $5 million to reunite The Smiths because—ever hear this one before?—it's not about the money. Fans had a break to scarf down a few tacos al pastor for dinner before Morrissey, with his sexy, trademark combover (Trump, do us a favor and check him out), hit the Austin Music Hall to perform old favorites like "How Soon Is Now" and "Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me," along with "You Have Killed Me" and "Life Is a Pigsty" from his upcoming album, "Ringleader of the Tormentors."

On Friday, Davies played an intimate set mixed with documentary clips from the tour he did shortly after September 11. Two days earlier, the Beasties—who were here to promote “ Awesome: I F---in' Shot That ,” a documentary filmed by 50 lucky fans—conducted a Q&A with audience members, sans moderator, which was, uh, licensed to ill. It might be OK to give fans cameras, but please, guys, don't ever give them the mic for an entire panel again. Most asked asinine questions: "Will you play at my party?" "Will you guys smoke out with me?" Later, thankfully, the trio turned up on Thursday for a surprise gig at the legendary barbecue and live-music joint, Stubb's. (Some slots on the SXSW schedule are set aside for “Special Guests”; the real hipsters at the festival already know who they are and where they're playing.)

Three underground-music-themed films stood out: “ The Refugee All Stars ,” “ Air Guitar Nation ” and “ Punk Like Me .” “The Refugee All Stars” got the runner-up to this year's first 24 Beats Per Second Audience Award (goes to the music-themed film that most connected with crowds) for its compelling story about a group of musicians from Sierra Leone who form a band as a way to transcend the violence during a brutal civil war. After living in exile in neighboring Guinea for four years, The Refugee All Stars moved back to Sierra Leone and expanded their six-piece band to nine. In one especially moving moment, one of the band's vocalists says that when he sees the rebel who, during the war, had hacked off his arm ... he'll forgive him. The band eventually gets a break—many of them have been musicians for more than 30 years—and is offered the chance to record its first album. The Refugee All Stars were there in person, sitting in the audience during screenings of the documentary, and later giving a vibrant performance at a Sixth Street club. It's as easy to fall in love with these guys as it was with the “Buena Vista Social Club.” (The documentary and the band are touring around the country; see www.refugeeallstars.org .)

It happens all of the time in New York: some guy on the subway is blasting music from his iPod into his skull, and, overcome by the moment, he starts to play air guitar. You're completely embarrassed for him. But in “Air Guitar Nation,” a documentary that chronicles the World Air Guitar Championships, the restrained and introverted are the losers. The film, which won the first-place 24 Beats Award, was initially a pitch for a TV show. After VH1 turned it down, director Alexandra Lipsitz journeyed on, spending two years documenting the stories of fans, top competitors and former world champions. The documentary will be screening again at New York's Tribeca Film Festival in late April.

It didn't win any awards, but “Punk Like Me” is just plain entertaining. This documentary follows Rich Wilkes, a 37-year-old wanna-be David Lee Roth who can't get on with his life until he gets a taste of what it's like to be in a touring band. Wilkes starts a group called Carne Asada, the world's first punk-rock Mariachi band, dyes his Mohawk slime green, rents a monster tour bus for $1,000 a day, and cons his way onto the Warped Tour by telling the tour's founder that he's going to write a first-person piece for Rolling Stone magazine. At one point, while practicing songs like "La Cucaracha" and "Feliz Navidad," Wilkes's dogs howl at the band's Spanish singing, and he finally admits that he's just "another geek looking for redemption."

He might have found it if he’d gone to The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s gig. The last time we heard from them, they were falling apart in 2004's Sundance-award-winning documentary “DiG!” This psychedelic bohemian indie-rock band has seen at least 40 members come and go since 1990. Most would blame frontman Anton Newcombe, a brilliant musician who brilliantly sabotages anything good that might happen. Newcombe didn't take lip from anybody at the band's midnight show last Friday. He snapped at an audience member for interrupting him in midsentence, and when it was time for BJM to step down for the next band, Newcombe rebelled. He kept strumming his guitar even as the announcer spoke over the chords, and when the drummer was finally persuaded off stage, Newcombe rocked the drum kit himself. It was so rock and roll, and so South by Southwest.