Austin, Texas is a city filled with a lot of independent-minded musicians and filmmakers. Echotone seems to be what happens when one of those filmmakers decides to make a movie about the entirety of Austin’s music scene. Predictably, the film feels a little scattered, but there’s a lot of interesting footage of a whole host of Austin-based musicians in action. This live footage and the accompanying backstage interviews keep the movie from being boring, but it still feels like quite the missed opportunity.
Director Nathan Christ starts Echotone out with a mission statement of sorts. We’re riding along in a delivery van with singer/guitarist Joe Lewis, of Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears. Joe is an affable guy who has clearly become a little jaded. He discusses his day job delivering fish to local restaurants and customers, and eventually gets around to mentioning his band. At one point, he tells an anecdote involving his daily trip up to the penthouse of one of Austin’s new high-rise condos, and how the man there never seems to recognize him despite the fact that he delivers fish to him every single day.
After that cold open, the film snaps into focus as Christ uses archival footage of Austin’s city council-created Live Music Task Force. The Task Force was formed in early 2008 to try to find solutions to a growing problem in Austin. With thousands of new residents moving into those high-rise condos, what can be done about the noise put out by music from the dozens of clubs and bars in the self-proclaimed Live Music Capital of the World? Do the new, mostly well-off residents deserve to have some peace and quiet in downtown Austin? Or do the musicians and club owners have the right to keep operating the way they have been for the last 40 years or more?
This is a great topic for a music film, and for the first 20-25 minutes of Echotone, it seems like Christ is really going to dig into it. But then problems arise. Most of the musicians Christ profiles don’t seem particularly interested in the debate, and the handful of businessmen and city council types that make it into the film don’t really have anything insightful to say, either.
Midway through the movie, Christ films a meeting of an Austin musicians’ group dedicated to fighting for the musicians’ rights. It draws about a dozen attendees, none of whom could be described as young. Intentional or not, it sums up Christ’s problem. The musicians in the city care about their own economic situations, but not enough to actually get involved in local politics. Since the interview subjects won’t engage with the film’s premise, Christ retreats from the social focus and instead tries for a more personal document.
Beyond Joe Lewis, by far the movie’s most personable subject, the film also spends a lot of time with Cari Palazzolo of Belaire, Bill Baird, formally of the band Sound Team, and manager/artist/label head Daniel Perlaky. Palazzolo takes being an independent musician to almost ridiculous extremes, going so far as to hand-decorate each cd and band t-shirt individually. And yet Belaire allows one of their songs to be used as background in a shampoo commercial. Notably, though, it’s only broadcast in Europe. This “sellout” conundrum is one that seems particularly played out in the 21st century, when the major music labels have largely collapsed and artists have had to find new ways to market themselves.
And yet Bill Baird seems to feel the sellout question down to his bones. Baird has a jaded, shell-shocked look about him. As a member of Sound Team, he experienced the massive shift that came from being in a local band to being a group on a major label when Capitol signed the band in the mid-00’s. But Sound Team’s Capitol debut sold poorly, the label restructured, and Sound Team was unceremoniously dropped. Without much of a national fanbase to keep them going, Sound Team broke up in late ‘07. When Echotone catches up with Baird beginning in early ‘08, he sounds defeated and a bit overwhelmed. The movie spends a lot of time with Baird as he talks about his experiences with Sound Team and the difficulty of picking up the pieces and starting over as a local musician again.
Then there’s Perlaky. An artist by choice, he says he became a band manager and label head mostly as a way to display the art and photographs he was doing for local bands. Perlaky gradually becomes something of the film’s main character, as Christ begins using him as an inside man to interview Austin musicians. Clearly he’s a known quantity around town, and people are willing to talk to him about a wide variety of topics. Except, you know, for the question of concert noise vs. residential rights. He’s a genial and engaging personality for the most part.
Still, Perlaky isn’t immune to occasional bouts of band manager bullshit. There’s a great moment during an interview with notoriously snarky A.V. Club editor Sean O’Neal when Perlaky starts talking about one of his bands. O’Neal calls him on it by saying “You’re just gonna plug your band, like, ‘they’re the future of music’?” Perlaky responds with, “They really are the future of music in the sense that they don’t give a shit!”, while O’Neal just buries his head in his arms.
Little moments like that one, as well as the crushed-dreams honesty of Bill Baird and the good-natured but realistic outlook of Joe Lewis, are what keeps Echotone afloat once it becomes obvious that Christ isn’t going anywhere with his original premise. There’s a lot of great live footage of the various bands (Ghostland Observatory, Dana Falconberry, White White Lights, The Octopus Project, The Apeshits, The Black Angels), many of which get what amounts to half-song cameo appearances in the film. Cinematographer Robert L. Garza does an excellent job of capturing the live performances in a variety of different ways, and it’s a shame that the DVD’s scant extras (trailers, a 5.1 sound mix, a handful of extended interviews) don’t include the full song performances of each band featured in the movie.
Eventually, Christ finds a new focus with which to finish the movie, and it’s completely predictable. It seems like he was following these artists anyway, so he decided to stick with them in the runup to South by Southwest, Austin’s yearly massive music showcase event. It’s hard to do a film about music in Austin without discussing SXSW, but the fact that it isn’t even mentioned until Echotone‘s second half makes it feel like an afterthought. For all I know Christ always envisioned his movie ending with the featured artists performing triumphantly at SXSW, but the film’s structure makes it feel like a cheap substitute that had to happen after his initial premise fell apart. There’s enough interesting behind the scenes material in Echotone to make it worth watching for music fans, but it’s hard to recommend it as an actual coherent film.