SXSW Music Documentary Reflections: The Smart Studios Story, I Am The Blues and Sidemen: A Long Road to Glory

Today we look at three brilliant music documentaries that screened at SXSW last month as part of their phenomenal 24 Beats Per Second music focused program:

Smart Studios Story

The Smart Studios Story

With an 4:3 aesthetic that takes it right out of a 1990s MTV world – all its missing is Kurt Loder’s narration – The Smart Studios Story takes us into the world of 1990’s rock and roll, as experienced through the Madison, Wisconsin based recording studio, Smart Studios. Founded by Butch Vig and Steve Marker of Garbage, the studio, which was in operation from 1983 to 2010, became one of the most prolific modern studios in North America in the 1990s, bringing us music from the likes of The Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, L7, Death Cab For Cutie… and of course Garbage themselves (Read our interview with Butch Vig HERE). But the documentary goes beyond the studio itself, looking at where it fit into the broader American music scene – how we got there and where we’re going from here.

Director Wendy Schiller (read our interview here) ties the film together with a menagerie of interviews and stellar archival footage that sits it as a superb portrait of not just a great studio, but the scene it was a part of. The film pops up among a resurgence of interest in the more traditional, now defunct studios from the 90s and earlier. Muscle Shoals and Dave Grohl’s Sound City being two highlights of recent memory.

Billy Corgan’s insightful interviews are worth the viewing alone, but in its very nature it’s a film worth viewing for anyone who considers themselves of a fan of the great music that came out of the studio, and especially those who worship the band that gave it its birth: Garbage. Unmissable.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

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I Am The Blues

A film that all fans of the Blues should watch, Daniel Cross’ beautifully directed film takes us on a journey through the American South, giving us a general look at the history of the Blues from the region as heard in the words of the genre’s surviving members: many no longer active on the touring circuit. Serving as a focal point for the film is one artist who has been active for some 60 years – a man who would be considered a contemporary of the great Buddy Guy, Bobby Rush. He talks about life on the road, why he loves it, and how he writes best while doing it – all while we drive across America, accompanied by stunning cinematography along the way.

His story brings the rest of the film together beautifully, as we spend time at Juke Joints like Jimmy “Duck” Holmes’ Blue Front Cafe (pictured at the top of this article), which he’s been running for 43 years. Or while we meet the famed Little Freddie King who has made no less than 326 records.

In many ways this film serves up the origin story of modern music. A must watch film for fans of the Blues – and anyone who listens to music today.

Read our interview with Bobby Rush and director Daniel Cross HERE.

Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

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Sidemen: A Long Road to Glory

“There’s the guy… and there’s there’s everyone else…”

There were a tonne of fantastic music documentaries at SXSW this year – without question this was the strongest 24 Beats Per Second program ever – but few were as important nor as beautifully constructed as Sidemen, the story of three men – sadly no longer with us – who were as important in the history of Blues music as the iconic men they played alongside.

With a sound narration from Marc Maron, the film chronicles the lives of piano player Pinetop Perkins, drummer Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith and guitarist Hubert Sumlin, all Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf “sidemen”. The film lets their words and their music shape the film (the filmmakers getting intimate interviews with them in the year before they passed), while we hear from the likes of the similarly late Johnny Winter and Eric Clapton, who sites Hubert as his inspiration. There are a lot of important things to take away from the film, but ultimately it’s about how these Sidemen, “redefined music, while they were getting the scraps…”. As it was poignantly pointed out early in the film “If you’re paid 50 cents for the day (playing music) – that’ll give you the Blues!”

Indeed, these men came up in a time where they were never acknowledged for their contributions to music – financially or otherwise. Without them, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf’s music would not have been what it was – in the same way that we wouldn’t have rock and roll if it wasn’t for the Blues or Chess records. And artists like Jimi Hendrix started out playing the Blues, while bands like the Rolling Stones made their name re-inventing it. These are important points of the musical story that everyone should know. And these are important men that – 5 years after their death – are finally getting the Glory they indeed deserve.

Read our interview with the film’s creative team HERE.

Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)