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Well-versed: 5 music docs at SXSW that sang to our hearts

Staff Writer
Austin 360
"Boy Howdy! The Story of Creem Magazine" screened at South by Southwest Film Festival 2019. [Contributed by Charlie Auringer]

A genre for all! We’re rounding up some films to watch out for out of this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival. In this roundup: music documentaries.

“Boy Howdy: The Story of Creem Magazine”

It’s oddly fitting that former zine-ster turned documentarian Scott Crawford, who made the Washington, D.C., punk tribute “Salad Days,” would turn to the legendary rock rag Creem magazine. Both stories are about cities generating their own music-based communities and how the influences of those communities spread to willing ears all over the place.

Detroit was and is one of the best music cities on the planet. From Motown and the Stooges to Bob Seger and the MC5 and Parliament, Detroit was at the cutting edge of American pop music from all sorts of angles. No wonder it (and a somewhat lunatic capitalist publisher named Barry Kramer) birthed Creem. Launched (sort of) as a response to Rolling Stone, Creem billed itself as “America’s Only Rock N Roll Magazine.”

That is exactly the way young fans like Cameron Crowe took it — irreverent to the point of offense but often very, very funny in a National Lampoon kind of way, Creem was a community any young misfit could belong to just by reading the mag.

While Dave Marsh was the magazine’s young, politically engaged editor, Creem’s mascot, court jester, absurdist moralist, periodically contemptible jerk, most famous alum and (complicating all of this) best writer was Lester Bangs. Everything about Bangs was sui generis, especially his celebrity: He was a rock critic famous for being a rock critic. There’s a little bit of footage of him in the doc but never enough. With Marsh and Bangs steering the ship (sort of), Creem was a magazine that mocked everything about the rock star machine just as the rock star machine was becoming very big business indeed.

The punchline is that a lot of Creem’s shtick has aged quite poorly, including a lot of writing (which Crawford doesn’t really get into) and the revolting sexism (which Crawford does get into). Even the women on staff sort of shrug their shoulders and blame the '70s.

But on the whole, “Boy Howdy” is an engaging portrait of a publication whose energy radiated out for years, from punk zines of the '80s and '90s to the incredible rap mag “Ego Trip.” There will hopefully always be room for writing that looks at culture and says, “We kid because we love.”

— Joe Gross, American-Statesman staff

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"The Boy Band Con: The Lou Pearlman Story"

When boy bands ’NSync and the Backstreet Boys hit the music scene in the mid-1990s, I was a college student who wasn’t listening to much pop music. It’s not that I was unaware of either act, they were certainly difficult to escape at that point, but they were not a going concern for me.

For that reason, I suppose I never even realized that while the two acts were often pitted against each other in the public sphere (especially when it came to topping the charts on MTV’s “Total Request Live”), they were both managed and found their careers being nurtured by the same impresario. Lou Pearlman was a larger-than-life entrepreneur who, after watching the grand success of the New Kids On The Block, decided that he could put together similar groups to rake in easy money.

It was just another grand idea from a businessman who had previously committed insurance fraud to kickstart his finances. And, at least initially, it wasn’t a home run. It took compiling two international albums from the Backstreet Boys into one U.S. debut before they started to take off at home (and eventually becoming the biggest-selling boy band in history). The perceived rivalry between BSB and ’NSync was a big hit for Pearlman, less so for the actual members.

Many of the guys from both groups are interviewed in “The Boy Band Con: The Lou Pearlman Story” (no, Justin Timberlake isn’t here, but his mother shows up to represent him a few times). They all explain how once they were really big enough to have lawyers review their contracts, it was clear that Pearlman was the only one benefiting from their success.

It’s a wild cautionary tale for young artists and musicians that only gets weirder after we leave the pop world behind and learn about Pearlman’s launching of a massive Ponzi scheme that followed all the artists he worked with suing him for fraud. In this case, the truth is definitely stranger than fiction.

The documentary will be available as a YouTube Originals release on April 3.

 — Matt Shiverdecker, special to the American-Statesman

"Brainiac: Transmissions After Zero"

I grew up outside of Dayton, Ohio, and right as I was graduating high school, it was actually pretty damn cool to be from the "Gem City." In that moment, Guided By Voices were celebrating the release of "Bee Thousand" and the Breeders were in heavy rotation on MTV with the "Cannonball" video.

Then there was Brainiac. Their music was nowhere near as accessible, but they burst onto the local scene and turned a lot of heads. Led by multi-instrumentalist Tim Taylor, the band took a wildly experimental approach to rock. After their debut album, "Smack Bunny Baby," was released in 1993, they were defiant about their Midwestern roots (as opposed to taking off for supposedly greener pastures), even going so far as to release a now infamous T-shirt that simply said, "(Expletive) Y'all, We're From Dayton."

In the second documentary by Brooklyn-based filmmaker Eric Mahoney, the Dayton native heads back home to look back at the legacy of Brainiac, 20 years after the tragic loss of Taylor, who died in a car accident in 1997 just as the band was on the verge of breaking out of the indie scene and onto a major label. Surviving band members Juan Monasterio, Michelle Bodine, Tyler Trent and John Schmersal are all interviewed extensively here and really flesh out the story of Taylor's background and how they all found each other to start making music. Taylor's mother, Linda, also tells the story of his childhood, his passion for music and how she's only just started to be able to listen to the music again after all this time.

With streaming services like Spotify now dominating the music landscape, it's almost hard to imagine that there was a time when all of the major labels were on the hunt for bands out of the underground. A&R representatives were all instructed to bring home the next Nirvana. While Brainiac didn't seem to have much commercial appeal, labels like Interscope were interested because of their own artists like Beck and Sonic Youth, who had gotten to know the band out on tour or through playing together at Lollapalooza. Mahoney lets the band members walk us through those days, although they don't always spill the beans. For instance, everyone remains mum when asked about an infamous party with Marilyn Manson, and we have to rely on an animated sequence that comically tries to guess what excesses occurred that evening.

Other interview subjects include comedian and musician Fred Armisen; the National's frontman, Matt Berninger; David Yow of the Jesus Lizard; and Eli Janney, who produced the first three Brainiac albums.

For some, this documentary will fill the gaps in the story of a band they already love. For others, this may well be an introduction to their new favorite band. Even 20 years after their last release, Brainiac sound like they're from the future. This documentary is an excellent primer that should help to secure their place in music history.

— Matt Shiverdecker, special to the American-Statesman

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"Mr. Jimmy"

Most musicians start out trying to sound like their heroes. Who hasn’t said to themselves (consciously or not), "If I buy this pedal, if I use this amp, if I wear this shirt, I will play like my hero, sound like my hero, become like my hero."

Akio "Mr. Jimmy" Sakurai has taken this sort of thing to extremely extreme extremes. As chronicled in the excellent film “Mr. Jimmy,” Sakurai has devoted his life to mastering the look and sound of Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page.

To wit: A scene of him and his amp engineer replacing a vintage transistor and adjusting the gain to make the amp sound more like 1973 Page. In another scene: the embroiderer charged with making sure all of the details on Sakurai's stage costumes are correct, down to the thread. And another scene: the guy hand-winding pickups for Sakurai, tweaking the magnets just so.

After Page shows up at one of Mr. Jimmy’s Zep re-enactment concerts, Sakurai decided to try his luck in America. As you might imagine, American Led Zeppelin tribute acts aren’t exactly interested in recreating precise “Whole Lotta Love” solos from various eras. This isn’t to say they are bad, but they’re not Sakurai. For him to play this music, as the movie notes, “in a lackluster way ... would be inexcusable.” Lackluster means different things to different musicians; the gulf between Mr. Jimmy and his peers is vast.

Directed with charm, sympathy and admiration by Peter Michael Dowd and soundtracked (smartly) not with Zeppelin but with the blues and early rock Page was trying to rip off when he first started out, “Mr. Jimmy” is about precision for its own sake (see also 2011 documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi"). It’s an absolute must for electric guitarists of all sorts — it’s refreshing to be reminded that rock music is, as much as anything else, about the manipulation of electricity— and beyond-a-must for Zep nerds.

As one friend of Sakurai puts it, “Of course he can’t become (Page). The fact that he keeps pursuing something that doesn’t have an answer — I respect that.” So will you.

— Joe Gross, American-Statesman staff

"The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash"

Thom Zimny makes beautiful tributes. Check out “Elvis Presley:” The Searcher” and “Springsteen on Broadway” for the proof. “The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash,” his loving and lovely tribute to titular singer, follows the same format as that Elvis doc — white titles; tons of stunning archival footage; plenty of voice-overs from Cash, his kids and his admirers. Rodney Crowell! Jackson Brown! There’s little that hardcore Cash fans don’t already know, but that’s not the point of Zimny’s stuff. The point is celebration and tribute; in those terms, it’s a lovely film.

Using the Folsom Prison gig as a sort of frame and objective correlative, Zimny takes us through Cash’s remarkable life, from a hardscrabble Arkansas childhood (which included a distant father who abused his mother, as well as a much-adored older brother who died in a hideous industrial accident) to his Air Force time (where he was a radio man who had a talent for listening) to his days in Memphis and beyond. The title refers to something Cash's mother said about his singular voice: “God put His hand on you; don’t ever forget the gift.”

But she might as well have been talking about Cash’s singular place in the 20th-century pop pantheon. A songwriter as much as a singer, Cash had, as Graham Nash notes in a voice-over, an amazing talent for writing lyrics “without a word too many or too few.”

Country by default, rock by influence, folk by upbringing and singer-songwriter by design, Cash was never just one thing. When folkies came along, he fit right in. When Dylan came along, Cash had him (and a wealth of artists, playing live, both black and white) on his variety show. When his career hit the skids in the 1980s, he kept on keeping on. As a colleague once noted, “A few years before those Rick Rubin comeback albums, Cash was the third-best Highwayman.” (Sorry, Kris Kristofferson.) And when Rubin leaned hard into Cash's voice, proto-goth clothing and unique vibe, the singer had one of the greatest second (or third?) acts in pop history.

“The Gift” is like a lavishly illustrated Bible. You know the story, but this is a gorgeous version. 

— Joe Gross, American-Statesman staff