If it sounds like a contradiction in terms to say that the SXSW Film Festival went out with a bang by showing a documentary about folk rockers, then you weren’t at the Paramount Theater Saturday when various permutations of Mumford & Sons, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes and the Old Crow Medicine Show took the stage after a screening of the film of their last year, “Big Easy Express.” Both Mumford and Sharpe previewed new songs (“Where Are You Now” and “I Don’t Want to Pray,” respectively) during a live five-song set, but really that was an encore to the hour-long film from Emmett Malloy that frequently elicited bursts of applause.
Although light on insight into the bands’ collective back-to-basics’ attitudes, the director, who last helmed “The White Stripes: Under the Great Northern Lights,” once again finds no shortage of iconic shots when tracking the three bands’ six-city whistlestop tour from Oakland to New Orleans aboard the titular train in 2011. For fans, there are rousing versions of Mumford’s “Little Lion Man” and Sharpe’s “Home” that Malloy conveys with same energy as they must’ve been received live and the best sequence of the film arrives when Mumford and Sons joins the band at Stephen F. Austin High in Austin to build a version of “The Cave” that gives off goosebumps when they move from a spare, white bandroom to the front of a wildly colorful crowd in concert.
Malloy captures all the joy of the portable hootenanny with a still photographer’s eye, the music rolling right along with the train. The fact that his camera seems to be allowed into places others wouldn’t is literally more true than it has ever been before — in the crevices of the coaches during jam sessions, in the nooks between the thousands of members of the Magnetic Zeroes and the Old Medicine Show on stage. The experience of simply being there will be more than enough for most, though it feels like there was a missed opportunity to explore why two of the three acts on this tour that romanticizes the America of Woody Guthrie aren’t from these parts and why their brand of folk music has transcended its genre to find mainstream popularity in recent years. Still, it’s a massively entertaining snapshot of these bands in their prime.
While I can’t officially review “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me” quite yet, it should be noted that the festival’s other mix of a rock doc with a live performance on Thursday evening was also a grand success. As SXSW producer Janet Pierson said before the screening, the documentary about the ‘70s cult band was presented as a work-in-progress, and yet it should be said that director Drew DeNicola certainly appears to be on the right track with his profile of the rock group that true to its name burned brightly but quickly over the course of three enormously influential records that didn’t find immediate success with consumers, but were embraced by critics and other musicians who kept the torch alive.
For the casual music fan, the name Alex Chilton still only might ring a bell as the title of the Paul Westerberg-penned tune, but “Nothing Can Hurt Me” is definitely a step towards changing that. Even though the naturally gifted lead singer of the band passed away in 2010 before DeNicola likely could get in touch for an interview, his raspy voice pops up occasionally to help tell the story of how he first found success with Alex and The Boxtops as a 15-year-old and soon after collaborated with fellow southerner Chris Bell to form a band that carried the new sound of the British Invasion into America with depth unusual for pop music.
The film takes a similarly deep plunge in discovering how the band achieved their cult status, piecing together a history of disappointing developments at their label Ardent, a one-and-done convention for rock writers that brought them to prominence in the critical community, and the sadness surrounding the group that almost seemed to be foretold by their penchant for darker lyrics. After the screening, the tribute concert that featured performances from M. Ward, R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, and others to compliment the newer incarnation of the band only further emphasized the fact that the story of Big Star is unfinished in terms of the legacy of the band as it is for the film, yet both clearly evolving into something special.