'A Song for You: The Austin City Limits Story': SXSW Review

Courtesy of SXSW
An enjoyable if not revelatory tribute.

Keith Maitland celebrates TV's last great music show.

An institution that for much of its life has epitomized the values that made the home of SXSW one of the world's great music towns, Austin City Limits is the kind of long-attention-span, broad-audience entity television just doesn't make any more. Singing its praises via interviews with stars who put it on the map and others who grew up watching it, Keith Maitland's A Song for You offers enough behind-the-scenes color to entertain fans and enough clips of first-rate performances to send newbies off to YouTube in search of more. Clearly an authorized product but not a smarmy one, it would be useful on TV at fundraiser time, for public television stations hoping to remind viewers what their tax-deductible gifts help pay for.

Like so much in Austin's history of cool, ACL can trace things back to Willie Nelson. He played the first episode, dropped by for many more — producer Terry Lickona recalls him lighting up a joint while watching Roger Miller from the catwalk — and is an obvious choice for the ACL Hall of Fame, whose planning the doc observes. The production of that show and of the series' 40th season is a fine opportunity to get staff members to reminisce — and given how tenaciously behind-the-sceners hold onto jobs here once they've got them, many of these individual Memory Lanes stretch back for decades.

It would be fun to spend more time with these folks, watching the nitty-gritty of putting an episode together (not to mention listening in on the process of deciding who'll play on the show), but this being a general-interest film, Maitland understandably focuses on the stars. From old hands like Nelson, Bonnie Raitt and Flaco Jimenez to up-and-comers Brittany Howard (of Alabama Shakes) and Thao Nguyen (Thao & the Get Down Stay Down), everyone has nice things to say about a show where artists aren't squeezed in between commercial breaks and movie-star interviews.

Usually taking an interview as his cue, Maitland offers snippets of memorable performances by Ray Charles, Townes Van Zandt, Lightnin' Hopkins and others. The clips are all too short, and how could they not be?

The show's move in 2011 from its University of Texas studio to a splashy one in Austin's much-transformed downtown is another occasion for nostalgia here, and the doc features more than one scene of someone walking into the old Studio 6A and sighing at how good it feels to be back. Unlike some other beloved Austin music venues, at least this one was preserved long enough to host a reunion or two.

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (24 Beats Per Second)
Production company: Go-Valley
Director: Keith Maitland
Producers: Tom Gimbel, Susan Thomson
Directors of photography: Keith Maitland, Sarah Wilson
Editor: Austin Reedy

Not rated, 90 minutes

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