Film Review: Echotone

First-time documentary filmmaker Nathan Christ paints a compelling, if somewhat diffuse, portrait of a city—to say nothing of an entire industry—in transition.

A scrappy indie documentary about scrappy indie musicians trying to get by in Austin, Texas, the so-called “live music capital of the world,” Nathan Christ’s debut feature Echotone opens with a montage of images depicting the city’s past and present. Over the melodious cacophony of an indie rock band jamming onstage, Christ cuts between black-and-white photographs of a dusty, turn-of-the-century frontier town and footage of the towering present-day (well, close to it, anyway—the bulk of the film seems to have been shot in 2008 and early 2009) Austin skyline shot on a digital video camera.

The impression of profound change that this sequence suggests—as well as the inevitable twinge of nostalgia for times past that often accompanies profound change—sets the tone of the rest of the movie, which is primarily devoted to capturing both a city and a way of life in flux. (The title, by the way, supposedly refers to a moment “where nature and civilization meet,” so sayeth one Austin resident before a city council meeting devoted to the issue of live music. His assertion isn’t fact-checked in the film, though—anyone want to get the Oxford English Dictionary folks to weigh in?)

Let’s start with the city. Despite reaping the rewards that come with a title like “the live music capital of the world”—rewards that include a lively downtown scene, a healthy influx of young workers and a densely populated annual music/film/technology festival (that would be South by Southwest) that injects over a million dollars into the local economy every spring—Austin is a town that’s split over one of its primary industries. At the aforementioned city council meeting, for example, a number of citizens line up to lodge complaints about the noise and other side effects of having so many live music venues within the city limits. (The majority of these armchair critics, it should be noted, are considerably older than the people regularly frequenting said venues.) And then there are the new housing and business properties that are being developed, most of which are pitched at workers in a higher income bracket than your average indie rocker. Indeed, most of the musicians Christ speaks to mention the difficulty of making ends meet in contemporary Austin; one of documentary’s primary subjects, Black Joe Lewis (front man for the band Black Joe Lewis and The Honeybears) still shows up at his day job delivering fish even after a long night out performing and posing for magazine photo shoots. Many of them also speak wistfully of wanting to devote themselves full-time to their art, before ruefully remembering the precarious state of their finances. (It’s no accident that one of the Honeybears’ songs is called “I’m Broke.”) Time was, a band would make the pilgrimage to Austin, make a name for themselves at the clubs and then get signed to a major label that would set them up for life. Sadly, those days are as long gone as the horse-drawn carriages that once travelled up and down Austin’s wide streets.

Which leads into the second story Christ is out to tell, namely the virtual collapse of the recording industry and what it means for contemporary musicians looking to turn their passion into a viable career. Our primary window into this experience is Bill Baird, the former lead singer of the band Sound Team, which was discovered out of Austin and signed to a major deal at Capitol Records in 2005. Two years later, though, Capitol’s corporate master EMI merged it with Virgin Records and a number of executives and artists were dropped in the process, including Sound Team, which had released only one low-selling album. Now back in Austin working the club scene as part of a new group, Baird speaks contemptuously of his experiences in the “major leagues” and seems skeptical of anything that smacks vaguely of the industry, including South by Southwest. That sentiment is echoed by several of the musicians Christ interviews, although a few of them admit to compromising those principles when offered a financial incentive. Cari Palazzollo, front woman of the band Belaire, agreed to license one of their instrumental tracks for use in a European Palmolive commercial (Christ films her watching the ad online and laughing hysterically) and found that those pesky fears about “selling out” were waylaid somewhat by finally having the money to record and produce a complete album.

Christ has set a difficult but admirable task for himself in trying to fuse these twin narratives into one film. Truth be told, he doesn’t completely pull it off. While Echotone effectively captures the individual stories of the musicians and the challenges they face navigating such an uncertain, unsettled landscape for recording artists, the larger transformation happening within Austin feels like a bigger, more complex story that the film never gets a firm handle on. Part of the problem is that Christ’s interviews with city officials, who could potentially address some of the issues facing the city in more detail, are too few and far between. (For some reason, the 2008 financial crisis goes unmentioned, which is odd considering the impact it would undoubtedly have on the business and residential properties we see being developed.) It also would have helped to hear from an Austin historian who could speak more broadly about the socioeconomic makeup of the town and how it has changed over time. The absence of any South by Southwest organizer or spokesperson is notable as well, particularly since the festival looms so large on the Austin music scene. In fact, the last 20 minutes of the film are given over to scenes from SXSW’s 2009 edition, as well as the Slamdance-style “outlaw festivals” that have sprung up to challenge what has become an increasingly mainstream event. Nevertheless, Echotone remains an interesting ground-level glimpse at a specific point in the life of a city and an industry that’s continuing to evolve.