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Todd P Goes to Austin

Distributed by Microcinema International/Microcinema DVD, 1636 Bush St., Suite #2, SF, CA 94109; 415-447-9750
Produced by Otto Arsenault and Taylor Cohen
Directed by Jay Buim
DVD, color, 68 min.
College - Adult
Music, Indie Rock, Popular Music

Reviewed by Vincent J. Novara, Curator, Special Collections in Performing Arts, University of Maryland

Date Entered: 1/7/2011

Todd P Goes to Austin offers a raw view into the world of underground rock music that is rarely seen or too often portrayed inaccurately. The film leaps around the United States as various indie rock bands descend on Austin for what is meant to be a counter-South by Southwest (SXSW) concert series organized by the Brooklyn-based promoter and do-it-yourself (DIY) advocate Todd Patrick. Artists featured in Todd P include Dan Deacon, Matt and Kim, The Death Set, Team Robespierre, Mika Miko, and several others. Loosely assembled performance footage, Patrick elucidating his opinions on music, informal discussions and van banter, and occasional aping for the camera constitutes the movie. An absence of narration is substituted by on-screen labels indicating location and distance to Austin.

SXSW is a large-scale multi-day festival of music, film, and interactive conferences that occurs annually in Austin, Texas, featuring professional artists at all levels. Established in 1987, this festival has a reputation for showcasing independent, self-managed bands, unlike its other large-scale contemporaries. However, SXSW has grown into a commercialized music industry-based event that is contrary to the spirit of DIY ethics and practices, which are frequently central to indie rock musicians.

As a promoter, Patrick explains his perception of the music industry midway through the documentary: “The music industry doesn’t know how to nurture or appreciate quality. It sees something that came out of the grassroots and latches its little talons on it and then turns it into [expletive]. Really no alternative than to take it into your own hands and promote stuff on your own and to basically decide what stuff, and sift through the obscurity and find the greatness there because there is so much better music being made on the underground level than the above-ground level.” Somewhat analogous to Patrick’s position is the simple advice offered by a member of Team Robespierre to the more ambitious groups hoping an event like SXSW will bolster their careers: “Realize that you’re lucky and go have some fun… it’s not gonna last forever.” That outlook sums up much of the attitudes displayed throughout Todd P Goes to Austin.

While it is obvious that viewers are following Patrick’s road trip to Austin, at times the filmmakers appear to be off any logical itinerary capturing footage in vastly different time zones. This results in a film that intends to document a clear initiative (the eventual counter-SXSW performances) at a precise destination (Austin) failing to provide a coherent linear progression to the penultimate event.

The role of the van in the lives of these groups is also highlighted. (A van is even featured in the DVD’s artwork). Essentially, the van is the fifth Beatle for many of these groups as it not only serves as a means to transport personnel and gear, but also provides a place to sleep, hold meetings, or serve other surprising needs.

Forty minutes into the documentary Patrick’s convoy arrive at their destination: the back porch party space of a restaurant called Ms. Bea’s. The first free concert is well attended and engaging. Almost predictably, the police appear and stop the performance, though it continues the following day. During the interim, the filmmakers visit the proper SXSW festival and the contrast in attendees, facilities, and location in Austin are readily apparent.

Partway into the concert series this film endeavors to document, the story abruptly jumps to the following year, again at SXSW. This time it is with Patrick promoting his own official show as part of the actual festival. He also hosts an impromptu illegal after-party outside of a warehouse, which is consistent with Patrick’s DIY ethics and subversive tendencies as depicted in the film.

Indie rock enthusiasts will find very little that is uncommon in Todd P. For scholars new to the genre the film can serve as an entry point to a subculture of music that is getting increasing attention in academic print sources, but less in media sources. Thus, it is the performance documentation that gives this movie its greatest value to scholars. Viewers witness firsthand the ecstatic interaction between artist and listener during inspired and visceral performances. The audio fidelity varies from venue to venue, but the events are shot with excellent consistency allowing for in-depth analysis of demographics, instrumentation, technology, and environment. The quality of life the artists endure between performances is also documented unabashedly.

Todd P provides some of the best candid footage of this subculture’s communities and performance practices since filmmakers Adam Small and Peter Stuart followed the bands Social Distortion and Youth Brigade (and visited Minor Threat) in Another State of Mind (Time Bomb, 1984). Other notable documentaries on this topic include 1991: The Year Punk Broke (Dave Markey, 1992), which focuses on bands that were more established and on the brink of stardom; and, similarly, Punk’s Not Dead (Vision Films, 2006), which attempts to make the case for punk’s popularity via footage of lesser known and famous figures alike. Overall, Todd P Goes to Austin is an honest, though mildly disjointed, snapshot of indie rock at its most grassroots, and is an instructive documentary on the subject in general.