A Film Study on Tuesday at SXSW: The Mythology of Muscle Shoals
SXSW Interactive? Check. SXSW Comedy? Check. SXSW Film? Don’t mind if I do! The wealth of independent cinema flown into Austin this week was all that was left to experience before all hell breaks loose when the music portion kicks off in earnest on Wednesday. Quick disclaimer before we start: I don’t know anything about independent film.
At SXSW 2012, up-and-coming filmmaker Danny Madden won the SXSW Jury Award for Best Animated Short for (notes on) biology (watch it; you will be entertained). This year he premiered, euphonia, his first feature film. As you might have guessed from the name, euphonia, which I saw the Saturday night but was also playing Tuesday, is a study in sound. It centers around a high school student (Will Madden) who buys an audio recorder and becomes obsessed with taping all of the sounds that come into and out of his life as an apathetic grocery store clerk and student. Madden’s character spirals so deeply into the cordoned-off aural world he’s created for himself that his ability to participate in the real world and engage with his prospective love interest (Maria DeCortis) is a challenged severely. euphonia is surreal sonic journey and provides a fascinating perspective on how technology can distract us from what’s really going on in the world, ultimately posing the question of what to do when all of our technological existences—on the Internet, in our iPhones, through our tape recorders—become more real to us than our interpersonal relationships.
After leaving the theater Saturday night and walking back to Sixth Street across the river, cyclists whizzing past me, people talking behind me, the dull roar of the city sharpening as I closed in on it, I became hyper aware of every sonic intricacy that passed through my periphery. For that brief period of euphonia afterglow, it was like a whole new world had revealed itself, and I’m certain everyone who saw it couldn’t help but have had a similar experience. With a commercially awkward running time of 53 minutes, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to see euphonia in theaters anytime soon, but keep checking in with Ornana Films for updates. It might just show up online soon. If it does, just make sure you’re listening through headphones. Here’s the trailer:
I DIDN’T CRY, BUT I WOULDN’T HAVE BEEN EMBARRASSED IF I DID
When These Birds Walk ended and the floor was opened up for a Q&A with directors Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq, the first question came from a woman literally in tears. She told them how beautiful their film was, apologized for crying, composed herself and proceeded with her question. Everyone in the theater empathized.
This artful documentary—which plays like a narrative feature, devoid of interviews with “experts” that take away focus from the story being told—is the result of three years Mullick and Tariq spent in Pakistan, immersed in the lives a group of 9-12 year old boys living in a house that provides food, shelter and care for runaway and abandoned children. The boys stay at the house until their parents decide to come pick them up or until they’re eventually taken home. Some are at the house for days, some for months, some for years.
Throughout These Birds Walk, the featured boys grabble with the idea of what “home” really is, their relationships with God and their families and the meaning of their existence in halfway house limbo. Mullick and Tariq do an admirable job avoiding the tropes the West typically uses to portray Middle Eastern culture, centering their vision on the lives of the people they came to know and love throughout their time in Pakistan. These Birds Walk is scheduled to be in theaters this fall. See it if you have the chance, but you might want to bring a few tissues because it really is that moving.
THE SHORT STUFF
Short films function a lot like short stories in that as opposed to their big brothers who get all the attention—features and novels, respectively—the short stuff is more concerned with leaving the audience with an acute impression of something—a certain emotion, say—rather than a flowery, intricate plot line. It’s like taking a shot of Jack Daniels as opposed to slowly enjoying a glass of a complex wine kind of… Like I said I don’t know anything about independent film.
I was able to catch the final three films of Tuesday’s Short Program at The Rollins Theater. SKIN, directed by Jordana Spiro, takes a look at the outcast young son of a taxidermist as he tries to make friends with a girl schoolmate whose dog had just died. Ellen is Leaving is a New Zealand film about a girl who is leaving the country and her boyfriend for reasons not revealed to the audience. The two are deeply in love but have resigned themselves to the fact that their relationship is over. Ellen tries to set her soon-to-be-ex boyfriend up with another girlfriend for after she’s gone and emotions start to get complicated. Both of these films leave you with that “all of a sudden” visceral takeaway you want out of short form art, and it didn’t surprise me to learn that later that night Ellen is Leaving won the SXSW Jury award for Best Narrative Short, with SKIN picking up an honorable mention.
The third film, It’s Not You, It’s Me, was not your typical short in that A) It was hilarious, and B) It had some star power, featuring Community‘s Gillian Jacobs and Rob Huebel, whom you’d recognize from The Office and elsewhere. It focused on Jacobs’ character, credited only as “Babe,” as she takes to let’s just say extreme measures in dealing with the undesirable men she ends up in relationships with. I’m not sure what the policy is on revealing spoilers for 10-15 minute films, so I’ll err on the side of letting you find out for yourself. Oversized suitcases are involved, though.
THE MAGIC OF MUSCLE SHOALS
I almost didn’t see Muscle Shoals. I had a late morning, I hadn’t showered and it was starting in five minutes two blocks from my hotel. It was THE movie I really wanted to see at South by, though, so at the last minute I decided to suck it up and sprint (literally) to the theater. And thank god, because it just might have been the best music documentary I’ve ever seen.
Muscle Shoals is a small town in northwest Alabama that became a music recording mecca in the ’60s and ’70s; everyone from Aretha Franklin to the Rolling Stones to the Allman Brothers Band to Paul Simon has recorded there. Director Greg Camalier spent four years compiling interviews with a long list of legendary musicians—including Mick Jagger and Keith Richards—who are indebted to Muscle Shoals and the “Muscle Shoals Sound.” Primarily, though, the film is centered around the natives that made it all happen, specifically Rick Hall—the founder of FAME Studios, where the “Sound” was born—and his original house band “The Swampers,” who are undoubtedly one of, if not THE, greatest studio bands of all-time.
The film is beautifully shot, beautifully edited and a lot funnier than you might expect (partially because of the editing), but what really stands out is the way Camalier portrays the mythological elements of Muscle Shoals. The Native Americans who lived in the area called the Tennessee River, which runs through the area, “the river that sings”; It’s where Helen Keller was from; the first word she learned to say was “water”; several of the musicians interviewed spoke of how there was something magical about the area, how it possessed an indefinable quality far more profound than just being a place in Alabama where people happened to start recording music. There were greater forces at work. The fiery recording perfectionist Rick Hall, who served as the documentary’s main character, was and is the kind of person that’s hard to believe really exists. He lived the life you hear all the old blues legends singing about: rambling, gambling and suffering through one unspeakable tragedy after another. He just reacted by telling the world to go fuck itself and becoming one of the biggest badasses of all-time. Like Robert Johnson going down to the crossroads, everything to do with Muscle Shoals is the stuff of legend.
And, thankfully, it was just picked up by Magnolia, so it’s about to reach a much larger audience. Do see it if you have the opportunity. I almost missed mine.
Here’s the trailer:
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