At 14 Pews Saturday night
Cool Capital realities: Echotone examines the struggles of working musicians inAustin
May 7, 2011 | 8:31 am
There's little doubt that Austin has earned a reputation as the magnet city in Texas. While Houston, Dallas and San Antonio all have their hip, creative communities, there are still plenty of people who, when looking for some like-minded peers, pick the capitol to seek them out.
In Nathan Christ’s documentary Echotone, the question is raised: How well does that work out for everyone, at a time when the city’s identity is changing more rapidly than ever before?
That question is explored throughout the course of the film, but it’s not some hand-wringing contemplation piece. What makes Echotone so effective is that it explores its themes by looking at some of the self-proclaimed Live Music Capital’s most interesting up-and-coming rock bands, so its portrait of the city is accompanied by a pretty stellar soundtrack.
The tension between art — especially music — and the realities of trying to make a living have long been themes of life in Austin, and Echotone finds ways to express that elegantly. It uses vividly-depicted characters, each representing different viewpoints, to illustrate exactly what challenges an artist faces when it comes to making a living from his or her art.
Joe Lewis, leader of Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears, drives around in his fish delivery truck, offering cranky monologue after cranky monologue about the city’s rapid growth and the lack of respect artists receive. Cari Palazzolo, of the synthpop band Belaire, is full of optimism and passion as she hand makes her group’s T-shirts and CD covers with paint, X-acto knives and markers in her backyard.
Sunset leader Bill Baird, meanwhile, is jaded and disappointed, after a previous attempt at rock stardom with his Capitol Records band Sound Team doesn’t turn out as he’d hoped.
With these three perspectives — and Lewis breaking through to international success during the course of filming — the movie manages to triangulate something like a consensus about what it means to be a modestly successful artist working multiple jobs in a city that’s widely portrayed as a creative capitol: Namely, that it kind of sucks, but it’s better than any of the alternatives.
While Echotone is a documentary, the way it captures this moment in Austin through artfully-captured characters (and by extension, other American cities where people are experiencing similar conflicts between art and commerce) recalls another independent film from 20 years back — Richard Linklater’s Slacker. Like Linklater’s breakout hit, Echotone is a movie set very much in the present-tense, and it’s biggest strength is a steadfast refusal to look back.
Because this is a movie about the Austin of the late ‘00s and early ‘10s, there’s no time spent dwelling on the myths of the Austin-that-was — no odes to the days of Janis and Stevie and Willie, or laments about how great the city used to be. There’s no time for that, as the movie smartly chooses to sketch its portrait of where the city is now by frenetically cutting in live performance footage from an array of the current crop of artists. The closest it comes to lionizing an elder statesman of the music scene is a quick interview with indie rock sensations Ghostland Observatory.
And ultimately, that’s what makes Echotone a movie with a broader appeal than to just Austin hipsters who want to see their way of life depicted on the screen. (Though those people will love it.)
There are any number of possible conclusions to draw about where things are going, but Echotone doesn’t get weighed down in drawing them. Instead, by focusing on a well-told, beautifully-shot (crane shots!) story about the sort of people who make Austin run creatively, it provides plenty of opportunity for viewers to cast parallels to whatever city is closest to their own hearts.
Because one thing that Echotone makes abundantly clear is that, for artists whose cultural currency is the coolness they contribute to their communities, there’s not much of an economy to help them translate that into cash. There are a number of cities in America whose growth engine is coolness, and while Echotone may not pay the musicians’ bills, it definitely finds an artful way to celebrate what they do.
Echotone will be shown Saturday at 7 p.m. at 14 Pews. It opens May 14 at Alamo Drafthouse West Oaks.