To quote some old friends, “What a long strange trip it’s been.” The 2012 edition of SXSW was bigger and more badass than ever, and that was a good thing – except for when it wasn’t.
You see, SXSW is no longer a fascinating industry attraction as it has more or less become a bizarre spring break destination. Interestingly, the recurring question in Austin was whether the amazing technology boom was going to continue to enliven SXSW, or perhaps kill it.
On the interactive side of things, business was still being done. With companies like Hulu and PayPal shoving new information at attendees, fanboy favorites Kevin Smith and Morgan Spurlock making appearances, and Al Gore doing a QA with Napster founder Sean Parker, the trade show, panels, and presentations were sure to be well-attended. But when you start getting mega-corporations like Google, Microsoft and American Express – thanks for the Jay-Z party at Austin City Limits, guys – taking over downtown, that’s just a whole new level of money and influence with which to contend.
More than anything, the interactive conference’s energy level resembled the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas during the 1990s. The new synergy was pervasive and just too damn strong to avoid. Ironically, the city’s temporary increase in bandwidth demand resulted in the now infamous “Homeless Hotspot” controversy, which involved hiring the Austin indigent to help provide wireless connections to the industry conventioneers. Sounds strange, right? Still, social media issues remain on everyone’s radar, and with new apps and services driving the industry, there’s no slowdown in sight and even the SXSW Film and Music fests are feeling the heat.
On the human side of things, it was great to see SXSW co-founder Lewis Black (not the one you’re thinking of) back on his feet and hanging tough through the film festival.
Recommended flicks would have to include Austin-legend Richard Linklater’s new East Texas murder comedy Bernie, starring Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey and Will Farrell’s latest kitsch-thing Casa de mi Padre, which was a total laugh-riot in spite (or because) of the subtitles.
Midnight movies are always a big thing for the SXSW film freaks, and besides the genre-shocker Cabin In The Woods, there was a crazy Nazis-from-the-moon fantasy Iron Sky and my personal favorite over-the-top martial arts action drama, The Raid: Redemption.
Another solid film was King Kelly, which was filmed completely on camera phones and is a bleak, outrageous look at our latest generation of sexually exhibitionistic kids who live out their scandalous lives using webcams, social media, and YouTube.
Strangely, the grand jury prize for best documentary went to Jay Bulger for his film on legendary (i.e. old) rock drummer Ginger Baker, which was most notable for the classic footage of the former Cream drummer in Africa playing with Fela Kuti’s band circa 1970.
We also have to mention the father/son rapprochement film In Our Nature for the scene where John Slattery’s character smokes out with his son’s young girlfriend played by Jena Malone. Along those lines, it was nice to see Parks and Recreation’s Nick Offerman getting high in the gentle life fable, Somebody Up There Likes Me. And finally, Electrick Children is a smart bit of magical realism based on a 15-year-old Utah girl’s supposed immaculate conception which (she believes) was caused by listening to a magical cassette tape of rock ‘n’ roll. The song in question is actually “Hanging On The Telephone” by The Nerves (later covered by Blondie) and I haven’t been able to get either version out of my head since seeing the movie.
In no uncertain terms, Bruce Springsteen and his team took over the musical segment of SXSW, exhibiting more control than any other artist has wielded in the entire history of the festival. Timed to coincide with the release of his new album, Wrecking Ball, as well as the beginning of his latest concert tour, Bruce was the Keynote speaker for the music conference and even provided a special concert for fans lucky enough to get chosen by a lottery system.
Of course, all was forgiven when Bruce actually hit the stage. While most groups across town were playing 40-minute showcase gigs, Bruce and the E Street Band played nonstop for 2 and a half hours and hosted special guests including Jimmy Cliff, Eric Burdon and Arcade Fire.
It was harder than ever to get around downtown Austin this year, and if you were lucky enough to get into a music venue that you liked, you were better off staying put than trying your luck elsewhere. The private parties were bigger and better established than in previous years, while the sanctioned showcases seemed briefer and more brutal than ever. But if you were lucky enough to see Bob Mould perform his old album Copper Blue in its entirety or catch the Big Star film and concert celebration, then you probably weren’t complaining.
As always, Austin native Alejandro Escovedo had the last word at SXSW, keeping tradition alive with his Sunday night gig at the Continental Club.
Despite the overdone combination of industry people, thousands of consumers, countless local concertgoers, spring-break kids, big business and grand commerce, SXSW was extraordinarily well run and totally organized – and that’s what worries me.