AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL 2010
By Don Simpson | November 15, 2010
Director: Nathan Crist
Starring: Bill Baird, Belaire, The Black Angels
Director Nathan Christ attempts to document, over a period of two years, how Austin’s independent music culture has changed as a result of the recent growth of downtown development. Christ focuses on a handful of musicians, including: Joe Lewis (Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears), who works a day job as a fishmonger for Quality Seafood; Belaire’s Cari Palazzolo, who is very vocal about not wanting success or money; Bill Baird (Sound Team, Sunset), who is bitter and jaded as a direct result of being screwed over by a major record label; Dana Falconberry, who works as a barista to support her music career; and the industrial duo Machine, who use the new development to collect the urban sounds bites from which they construct their soundscapes. In capturing the individual stories of these artists — and stressing how none of these musicians are able to make enough money at their craft to survive — Christ is on to something big. Why are these very talented musicians struggling so much financially? Why does the self-proclaimed “Live Music Capital of the World” treat its musicians like total shit? What can be done to correct this horrible wrong?
Unfortunately, Christ does not appear to adequately illustrate the purported relationship between the downtown development and the financial hardships of the musicians. Christ attempts to utilize video clips from Austin City Council meetings concerning hearings on sound ordinances to make his point. (Some Austin residents complain about being “terrorized” by music, while others express their desires to support local music.) Then Christ turns to Troy Dillinger (a local musician and founder of Save Austin Music), booking agents and promoters to help explain the relationship — but they cannot bring it all the way back to the musicians themselves.
Admittedly, some of my hard feelings about Echotone dragging the sound ordinance debates into this otherwise great documentary are probably related to personal biases. Before I start stirring shit up, let me first clarify that I do support proper zoning to allow for live music to thrive; within these districts, there should be reasonable decibel limits and a reasonable curfew — especially for outdoor venues. Where I seem to disagree with a lot of my peers is in my belief that there should be a clear and complete separation of historically residential neighborhoods and areas zoned as live music districts. My philosophy is that if you live in a historically residential neighborhood you should not have to listen to a venue’s loud music while you are inside your home, especially if your home existed long before the music venue(s) moved in. For example, I used to live near the French Legation, which has been a residential neighborhood for a very long time — that area should be protected from all of the live music venues popping up on Sixth Street east of I-35. However, if someone decides to develop housing within a live music district (such as Red River or Sixth Street), then the residents have no right to complain about the noise (of course the developer should inform potential residents that they would be moving into a live music district).
As I see it, Echotone makes people like me out to be the whiners who are destroying Austin music. All we hear is people equating live music to terrorism, but we are never given an opportunity to actually hear their perspective. (Where do they live? How long have they lived there? What music venue is giving them grief?) It seems as though Christ wants us to assume that these people live downtown — but what if they live in South Austin or East Austin? Do residents not have the right to complain about noise no matter where they live? When it comes down to it, the sound ordinance debate seems very similar to the smoking ban debate — it is all about retaining personal freedoms, however no one seems to care about the personal freedom of others. (Of course secondhand loud music does not cause cancer, so the similarities only go so far…)
Being that Echotone prompted me to just hop on my sound ordinance soapbox for two paragraphs must say something…
We also never hear the musicians of this documentary discuss the sound ordinances — and is this film not supposed to be about them? Do they think that the sound ordinances (and while we are at it let’s throw in the smoking ban for good measure) are the reason that they must work day jobs to support their music careers? If so, what do they think is the correlation? What are their suggestions for fixing the economic situation of Austin’s independent music scene?
Regardless of its agenda, Echotone succeeds tenfold in both sound and vision. Robert Garza’s cinematography is amazing — from the grandiose shots of the urban landscape seen from the perspective of the cranes to the craftily framed talking head interviews — and the soundtrack represents some of the best music Austin has to offer. Echotone offers a really interesting perspective of the musicians (all of whom make great subjects) and their financial struggles; I just wish the documentary stuck with that story the whole way through.
Some people are probably going to take this review the wrong way. So before I get bombarded with hate mail, please allow me to clarify some things. This review is merely my initial reaction to the film, nothing more. I really do not mean to be especially hard on Echotone, and this is by no means a personal attack on Christ. My main criticism is that I did not get the connection that Christ was attempting to make between the musicians’ financial burdens and the downtown development. Maybe I missed something? Who knows? Yes, I focused primarily on my concerns with the film, but I did enjoy it. (I am giving Echotone a 6 out of 10 rating — the equivalent of 3 out of 5 stars — which is pretty good in my book.)