Directed by Nathan Christ
Taken purely as a musical documentary, Echotone can be likened to Dig! in the sense that the film spends much of its time examining the balance of integrity and success interspersed with live music performances. Comparatively I would say that it even does a better job of developing a relationship between the audience and the musicians and had the film stayed on this course, it could have reached an elite documentary status. However the film never develops a solid identity and ultimately we're left with a loud and visually striking piece that reminds of what could have been.
First let's look at the bands. If someone had asked me to film a collection of musicians that represent the best of what Austin has to offer, I don't think I could have made a better lineup choice. Echotone focuses primarily on the core of:
Belaire - The band struggles with commercial success and integrity
Black Joe Lewis - Signed to a major label deal and covered in critical praise, he still works his day job delivering fish
Dana Falconberry - The singer like many Austin musicians works at a coffee shop by day and plays music at night
Sunset - The new project of former Sound Team member Bill Baird whose experience with Capitol Music made him re-examine success
The film also features contributions from The Black Angels, Machine, The White White Lights and others. The core group of musicians each provide a different yet compelling look into the life of a musician. Each ultimately examines the question of success and each musician charts a different path as time elapses. The film shot in 2008-2009 could have provided an epilogue at the end for those who do not follow these musicians on a regular basis. By the way, the soundtrack is available for free from Paste Magazine. Download it here.
Their performances are amazing and are a great example of the film's visual storytelling which features incredible shots from construction cranes and buildings under construction. If everything was muted, its visuals are a standalone work of art.
The problem I have with the film is that they could have done so much more in examining the battle between downtown residents and music venues. The only time anyone who resides downtown speaks their point of view are two scenes from a city hall meeting where one resident compares terrorism to late night concerts and another says they like music but don't want someone else's taste forced upon them.
The dynamic between musicians, artists and downtown development is a very rich subject. One great opportunity would have been to interview residents who live next to Mohawk and Club de Ville and get their side of the story because it is the strongest physical reference to the dynamic of music and development. They feature the building but they don't feature it's stories.
They interview the developer of the now completed Spring Condominium project who approaches the subject of development with perhaps the most powerful quote of the movie (I'm paraphrasing here) "Everyone carps on the fact that Austin was so much better when they moved here. If you came in the 70s then should have been here during the 60s. If you came in the 80s you should have been here in the 70s"
I remember my favorite concert of all time was a 2007 unofficial SXSW show at Gallery Lombardi that featured IAMX. I still recall most of the concert and what it was like standing inches from Chris Corner and rocking out while they played an awesome set.
It was the last show at that venue and just weeks later it was torn down to build residences. I wanted that connection, I wanted them to show venues that no longer exist and examine how cultural destruction is leading to a loss of identity. At times the film approaches the subject but each time we're left with a hint but not an answer.
Towards the end, the film features a segment on SXSW showing its growth and commercialization and in light of this year's fiasco, its more relevant than ever. The film covers the original aims of SXSW and how its grown into this perceived must have for any unsigned band but with an opportunity to really present a strong point of view it simply shows striking visuals and fails to capitalize on the narrative of how its become so large that any one band is fighting against thousands of others for the supposed benefits of a major deal that at this point in the music industry are a moot point.
Overall the film gets high marks for being an amazing documentary about Austin's music scene. The beautiful visuals and live performances persuade viewers to see the film as a look into a musician's daily life which is ultimately what the filmmaker's total focus should have been.