‘Echotone’ Will Captivate Starving Artists Everywhere

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CHICAGO – Two towering orbs are routinely seen eclipsing each other throughout “Echotone,” the wonderful new documentary by first-time filmmaker Nathan Christ. It’s an apt visual metaphor for representing the film’s titular term, which is defined as meaning, “the point at which nature and civilization meet.”

Rarely has the divide between artistic conviction and commercial ambition been as beautifully and artfully portrayed as in this picture, which will have its regional premiere at Evanston’s Talking Pictures Festival on Saturday, May 8th. The film centers on the vibrant indie music scene in Austin, Texas, and follows several young artists as they attempt to pursue their dreams without compromising their integrity. With his extraordinary cinematographer/co-editor Robert Garza, director Christ has created less of a multiple character study than a poetic collage of the city’s artistic culture, and its struggle to survive in the wake of gentrification.

Photo credit: Reversal Films

One of the most touching characters in the film is Daniel Perláky, the manager of several Austin bands including Belaire, which he was drawn to precisely because of its inability to fit inside an easily marketable label. Perláky is clearly not in the business to make a profit, and simply tries to break even, while championing bands that march to the beat of their own drummer. There’s a memorable moment late in the film when he attempts to talk with Belaire’s lead singer Cari Palazzolo about the possibility of commercializing her art without losing her soul. When Perláky mentions to Palazzolo the danger of her unprotected music getting stolen, her buoyant response is, “I’m down with that.” Like many artists in Austin, Palazzolo’s primary goal is not to enter the mainstream, but to share a personal connection with listeners through her work, which even includes homemade band T-shirts and paint-spattered CD inserts.

Another major presence in the film is Bill Baird, who resembles a younger, scruffier version of Beck. His band, Sound Team, was offered a major label deal by Capitol Records, but was quickly dropped after the release of just one album, which Baird refers to as an “overproduced piece of garbage.” Baird’s plot thread has one of the film’s few solid story arches, as the irked musician regains hope with his new band, Sunset. There’s also Black Joe Lewis, whose performances with his group The Honeybears receive rave reviews, yet is still forced to slave away during his day job at a fish market, which brings an amusing level of truth to his song, “I’m Broke.” His visible discomfort during a photo shoot mirrors Palazzolo’s awkward laughter when she witnesses her music being used in a shower cream commercial. Facing another day of grunt work, Lewis says, “It seems like everyone makes money off music except the artist.”

Photo credit: Reversal Films

It sure seems that way. One of the film’s particularly alarming statistics informs us that the vast majority of working musicians in Austin make less than $15,000 a year from their music. What’s worse is that the town has quickly transformed from a small college town to a burgeoning metropolis in which high-priced condos are stacked across the street from raucous clubs, inevitably leading to the threat of sound control ordinances. Several longtime Austin residents argue that their town’s teeming mass of creative culture is in dire need of someone to facilitate it, and that supporting local musicians should be seen as synonymous with “economic development and growth.” The film climaxes at the now-massive SXSW festival, as thousands more artists pour into town while straining to get their voices heard amidst the melodic chaos.

Though the film is ultimately all loose ends without any real closure, that’s exactly as it should be, considering its subjects all have uncertain futures ahead of them. Christ and Garza do a magnificent job of depicting a town in transition; Philip Glass’s “Powaqqatsi” theme would’ve fit perfectly over Garza’s majestic shots of construction cranes looming over the town. The wall-to-wall music from various local artists is impressive in its variety, and truly reverberates throughout the town (especially when some performers literally take their music into the streets). My personal favorite performance came from singer Dana Falconberry, whose haunting, high-pitched voice makes dreamy harmony with her fellow vocalists. Though music has failed to earn her a stable income, Falconberry says that it’s pointless for her to try quitting because she’ll “just end up in the same place.”

“Echotone” is a captivating and quite moving portrait of young people who create music not for fame or money, but simply because they must. Some of them have even found inventive ways of using Austin’s volatile environment as fuel for their work. When the local band Machine records the increasingly noisy ambient sounds of their city, and then mixes them into a song, they have triumphantly merged the forces of nature and civilization.

‘Echotone’ features Bill Baird, Cari Palazzolo, Black Joe Lewis, Dana Falconberry and Daniel Perláky. It was directed by Nathan Christ. It premieres on May 8th at the Noyes Cultural Center’s NEXT Theater, 927 Noyes St., as part of Evanston’s Talking Pictures Festival. It is not rated.

HollywoodChicago.com staff writer Matt Fagerholm

Staff Writer

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