A bank heist set to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms.” A spy fighting for her life set to ’Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry.” An awkward teen stealing his first kiss set to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” A shady backroom deal set to Charlie Parker’s “Blowtop Blues.” A van’s tires slowly crushing the skull of a junkie hoodlum set to John Denver’s “Annie’s Song.”
These were the sights and sounds of the 2017 SXSW Film Festival. It was an oddly musical collection of movies, almost self-consciously so, and watching them at Austin’s Paramount Theatre often felt a bit like lining up at the jukebox, change jangling in your pocket — thrumming, toe-tapping, personal Shazam-ing moments that pushed the movies themselves into something both more exciting and less impressive. Deployed carelessly, pop music can be a movie crutch. (Think Forrest Gump.) Done well, it can crystallize a union between sound and vision to make something new. (Think Pulp Fiction.) But these scenes soundtracked by these songs revealed as much about the movies as the festival itself, and specifically the way it’s programmed: SXSW is often thought of as a music fest — a sloppy, beer-soaked, mooch-heavy, corporatized, sprawling, indulgent, sometimes problematic music fest. The movies and interactive portions of the festival have long been second-class citizens, a delicate appetizer before a greasy main course. This year, the movies felt like a vital center, strangely, due to music.
In its 24th year, SXSW Film’s headliners were bigger and different than those from its recent past. This year, Edgar Wright debuted his frantic and astonishingly precise wheelman opera, Baby Driver; Charlize Theron made her world premiere as Lorraine Broughton a.k.a. Atomic Blonde, a vicious spy caught in a three-way international kerfuffle in 1989 Berlin; and Terrence Malick unleashed Song to Song, his long-gestating, Austin-set paean to indie rock and existential malaise. These are big-deal movies, but not like the ones SXSW typically premieres, like Neighbors, which headlined 2014’s festival; or Melissa McCarthy’s Spy, which did the same in 2015; or local hero Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some last year. The festival itself is best known for launching Lena Dunham with her debut indie, Tiny Furniture, and the films that compete tend to be low-key, angsty character pieces. More broadly, SXSW has specialized in crowd-pleasing headliners with pop appeal. But “Pop” was redefined this year, with a slew of movies that rocked and vibrated and rumbled — a film fest for music geeks.
As the notion of popular music is slowly decentralized and streaming services destabilize monoculturalism, the musical moments in these movies facilitated something increasingly uncommon: a communal experience. Moviegoing is becoming an expensive, cushy, and somnambulant experience marked by assigned seating, chairside food and drink service, plush recliners, and pin-drop silence. There were beers on hand in the theaters of Austin, but this wasn’t that — film-festival audiences are a tricky proposition and a diffuse grouping: one part fanboy, one part invested moviemaking participant, one part critic, with a dash of industry gadfly. Cheers are loud. Reactions are boisterous. Spontaneous applause is commonplace. At South by Southwest, especially so. It’s a party. When Theron throttled the knee of a rival spy with her stiletto heel in Atomic Blonde, the Paramount tittered and then quaked. I haven’t felt a movie theater roll and tumble like that in a long time.
Were some of the raucous group howling about a product to which they devoted time, work, or money? Yes. But that effect, that whooping, created a kind of narcotic haze. Soon, everyone was shouting, stomping, and hooting as a leather-clad Theron knifed one Russian thug after another. That so much of the movie — which was directed by David Leitch, the former stuntman who cohelmed John Wick — is scored by transporting ’80s songs like “99 Luftballons” and “Blue Monday” helped to create a diegetic time warp. We were all safe together, in a neon bar sipping Stoli on the rocks at the end of communism, vibing to mid-period Bowie.
Where Atomic Blonde surrounded audiences with a bygone sound to ratchet tension, Wright’s Baby Driver played like an iPod Classic with a broken click wheel on infinite shuffle. It’s a new kind of thing: an earbuds movie. The music is the narrative engine — every heist, every meeting, every kiss is backed by a pop gem, beloved or obscure. It’s an intricately plotted and executed concerto. Wright talked Baby Driver’s 22-year germination, and there is an “I have been honing this Spotify playlist for a long time, bro” quality to the movie. (Wright’s a noted user with excellent taste.) When it clicks — as when, say, Beck’s “Debra” becomes a storytelling tool and dialogue centerpiece — it feels like an utterly original style of moviemaking. Critics grasped for comparisons to The Fast and the Furious and La La Land, hunting for touch points for their tweets. In conversation after the screening, Wright cited his holy trinity of ’90s heist movies: Heat, Point Break, and Reservoir Dogs. He even noted the forgotten ’80s Burt Reynolds romp, Sharky’s Machine, as an influence. But Baby Driver, whose titular character (played by Ansel Elgort) is almost always seen wearing earbuds of his own, doesn’t really have an antecedent. It uses music as a pretext and a text. When the Damned’s “Neat Neat Neat” explodes during another robbery sequence, I had to hold my knee down so as not to bounce into the next row. Since I saw it, I have been piecing the movie’s playlist back together — as you might imagine, the song that the movie is named for makes an appearance — and remembering individual moments not by their story turns but by their accompaniment. It’s strategic and symphonic.
There were several other movies that used music as a tool at the festival, like the Sundance favorite Patti Cake$, which screened on Sunday. It tells the story of an aspiring white girl rapper from New Jersey, and the movie’s music is as inventive and committed as it is discomfiting and sociologically complicated. A raft of original songs written for the film jam the soundtrack, as does the occasional Bruce Springsteen track, a nod to the movie’s Jersey roots. The film pulsates with an odd kind of traphouse hip-hop and uses it to tell its story by having the protagonist explain and amplify herself literally via rapping. In Dustin Guy Defa’s Person to Person, a spidering New York character study, one of his leads finds himself ensconced in a scam built around the sale of a rare jazz record — love for the music drives and almost destroys him. In Ben Wheatley’s unhinged, electric Free Fire, a ’70s-set warehouse shoot ’em up, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Run Through the Jungle” blares as the characters saunter in slow motion into the site of a fateful arms deal. At this point, after hackneyed use in a dozen movies, CCR has become soundtrack claptrap, a weak and unimaginative choice for a scene. In fact, the song was just used with a rank obviousness in Kong: Skull Island. But in Free Fire, it takes on a different meaning — it’s not a signifier for Vietnam, it’s a warning: We’re entering a hell in heat, get out while you’re still alive. Even old hands turned to new music. Shot during SXSW in 2013, Malick’s much-maligned Song to Song found inspiration in the gutter garage of Black Lips and the steely poetic mantras of Patti Smith, who shows up in the film to wax ecstatic with Rooney Mara.
The ecstasy was not uniform. Some filmmakers are still figuring out how to use classic songs to etch their films with meaning. First-time filmmaker Elijah Bynum’s Hot Summer Nights was a touted debut with a plum Monday evening slot. The coming-of-age ’90s baby gangster drama set in Cape Cod worked for some, with fits of applause and a halfway-standing ovation at its conclusion. It’s Goodfellas Will Hunting. The movie, which still does not have a distributor, applies the more-is-more ethic when it comes to its soundtrack. Sometimes that results in a graceful montage set to the Modern Lovers’ elegiac “Hospital,” a truly canny movie song pick. Other times, it leads to that aforementioned “Space Oddity” drop, about as obvious and head-smacking as any I’ve seen in a movie. (The music-licensing budget for Hot Summer Nights — which is independently financed — must have been absurd.) Bynum has staggering control for a first-timer and lots of borrowed style; he cribs Steadicam moves from Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson left and right. But those two directors rhapsodize viewers with music history and imbue songs with new meaning with the images they create. Bynum wants to do the same, but the seams are showing. Using a song by a ’60s girl group in a diner scene doesn’t make you Scorsese, it makes you derivative. Bynum may need to spend a little more time with his Discover Weekly.
Wright is more precise — “Bellbottoms” is a song that’s been waiting to find a movie worthy of its slithering, stomping oddity for years. Ahead of the Baby Driver debut screening on Saturday, as attendees sat in their seats waiting for the film to start, an expertly curated soundtrack of Prince and Bowie tracks played to situate the audience. It was just like the way a band plays the songs it wants its fans to associate them with before a concert begins. One night later, before the Atomic Blonde screening, an actual DJ spun Adam Ant and Depeche Mode songs at a sonic boom to create atmosphere and anticipation for the movie. It felt like a response, one-upmanship, an audio competition in a movie theater. Or maybe it was just a new normal, a clever way to fire up an audience forced to stay seated for the next two hours. Maybe it’s a trend that should stick. Then marginalized movie audiences can have a karaoke to call their own.