Sheryl Crow's big night at SXSW includes documentary screening, Antone's show
Toward the end of "Sheryl," director Amy Scott's documentary about singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow that premiered Friday at the South by Southwest Film Festival, the rollercoaster ups-and-downs of her career finally give way a zen moment. For a couple of minutes, we see nothing but joyful scenes of Crow with her two adopted sons — playing together at home, hanging out in the studio, sharing smiles and dance moves onstage at her concerts.
It's a moment of inner peace that was well-earned for Crow, who parlayed a 1980s stint as a singer in Michael Jackson's band into a string of multiplatinum albums in the 1990s. "Sheryl" tells that story with a personal touch, balancing career pinnacles such as winning nine Grammy Awards and selling more than 50 million albums against her struggles with depression, breast cancer, sexual harassment and more.
Raised in Missouri, Crow moved to Los Angeles in the 1980s and gradually worked her way up from waitressing to commercial gigs to her own record deal. Her 1993 debut "Tuesday Night Music Club" sold in the millions and spawned radio smashes such as "All I Wanna Do," which won a Grammy for Record of the Year.
The story arc of "Sheryl" is compelling, if a bit predictable: Talented artist rises to the top of her field, then must deal with the constant pressures and demands of becoming a major celebrity. The film, which will air on Showtime in May, focuses on the making of her first four albums: longtime collaborator Jeff Trott and engineer Trina Shoemaker provide insight into the creative process, while manager Scooter Weintraub sheds light on Crow as both an artist and a person.
A handful of artist interviews — Keith Richards, Emmylou Harris, Jason Isbell, actress and close friend Laura Dern — underscore the respect Crow has earned from her peers over the years. Singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile, who recalls being inspired as a kid by Crow's performance on a 1990s Lilith Fair tour, gets the most laughs in the film with the line, "She’s straight as an arrow, but God, the lesbians love Sheryl!"
The movie touches briefly on Crow's ill-fated engagement to Austin cyclist Lance Armstrong, which dissolved amid Armstrong's denials of doping that he eventually admitted. Bouncing back from that heartbreak, Crow decided to adopt two children, partly following the advice of her parents, who also are interviewed for the film. A move to Nashville, where she has a studio above a stable of horses, clearly proved grounding.
We get perhaps not enough about the records Crow has made in the last two decades. That's maybe in part because Crow, who turned 60 last month, is now considered a "legacy" artist, which she explains in the film feels like a "sideways compliment" for musicians whose work often gets overlooked as they get older.
Case in point: Crow's impressive 2019 album "Threads," recorded partly at Austin's Arlyn Studios, featured collaborations with the likes of Willie Nelson, James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt. But though she's been nominated for 31 Grammys and won nine, "Threads" got no recognition. Her last Grammy nomination was for her 2008 album "Detours."
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The bet here is that, like Nelson and other American music icons who just keep working into their autumn years and beyond, Crow still has some glory years ahead. Her post-screening performance at Antone's Friday night underscored this.
The end of the film showed Crow singing for tens of thousands at the Bonnaroo festival, but the lucky couple hundred who got into Antone's heard an artist still at the peak of her powers as a performer.
Backed by an ace five-piece band of guitarists Peter Stroud and Audley Freed, keyboardist Jen Gunderman, bassist Robert Kearns and drummer Fred Eltringham, Crow delivered an impressive hourlong set that touched on most of her biggest hits, including "If It Makes You Happy," "Strong Enough" and "Soak Up the Sun."
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“It’s really good to be back in Austin," she told the crowd a few songs in. "I can’t believe how much it’s changed, I hardly recognize it. But it’s still weird, right?”
The jury may still be out on that. But if the warm reception she received at both the ZACH Theatre screening and the Antone's show was any indication, she's welcome back here any time.