'Honky Tonk Heaven: Legend of the Broken Spoke': SXSW Review

Courtesy of SXSW
A winning celebration of never-say-die local spirit.

Come have a Lone Star at one of the last great two-steppin' joints.

It's hard to be objective about a film like Honky Tonk Heaven: Legend of the Broken Spoke, which celebrates one of the few vintage treasures left in a city so radically transformed by its own popularity (thanks in large part to South by Southwest). So many of the people who made Austin, Texas, interesting were forced to move by the skyrocketing cost of living; so many places that made it fun were razed. But the Broken Spoke endures, and Brenda Greene Mitchell and Sam Wainwright Douglas' documentary captures both its humble charms and its status as a stubborn holdout of gin-u-wine boot-scootin' culture. Sure to be a hit with locals, the doc's video release will benefit from the worldwide fame of this shambling, beloved joint.

When James White built the place with his own hands in 1964, dancehalls like this were scattered all over Texas. Well, maybe not exactly like this: As pompadoured country star Dale Watson would have it, the Spoke is actually a combination dancehall and honky-tonk. The distinction will be lost on many viewers, but the point is that while so many rural VFW halls and the like were forsaken by locals, the Spoke kept chugging, drawing on both the traditional two-stepping crowd and on the more eclectic music community Austin has nurtured ever since the hippies and the rednecks decided they had important things in common.

White recalls how he was just 25 when he booked Western Swing legend Bob Wills, who shocked naysayers by actually showing up for the gig. Soon he gave a young songwriter named Willie Nelson a place to play, and bonded with Ernest Tubb, and so on ....

A family affair, the ramshackle bar was a nursery for the kids White raised with wife Annetta — the Jill of all trades who to this day tends bar, does the books and trusts few employees to execute her famous chicken fried steak recipe in the kitchen. The two are a lovable couple, and tell charming stories of their courtship when the filmmakers take them out to a scenic stretch of Hill Country land they own. Their daughter Terri still teaches newbies how to two-step with their dates before bands go on stage, and daughter Ginny makes the embroidery-and-rhinestone "bling" Western shirts Dad wears when greeting his customers every night.

Those daughters aren't the only ones who worry about keeping up traditions at a club now fenced in by big new apartment buildings. Mitchell and Douglas go a little easy on developers in their account of how South Austin has changed in the last decade or so, preferring to focus on what it feels like once patrons enter the venue's doors. As one enraptured out-of-towner puts it: "This is what I thought Texas would be like!"

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (24 Beats per Second)
Production company: Wild Blue Yonder Films
Directors: Brenda Greene Mitchell, Sam Wainwright Douglas
Producers: Brenda Greene Mitchell, Michelle Randolph Faires
Executive producers: Maria J. McDonald, Scott Mitchell
Directors of photography: Lee Daniel, David Layton
Editor: Sam Wainwright Douglas

Not rated, 74 minutes