Dispatch from SXSW : My Weird Night

Post from Stephen Becker reporting from AUSTIN – Normally when I write about my experiences at SXSW, I do my best to write about what I’m seeing and hearing and I leave out the other stuff. Why should you care what I had for dinner or what kind of drinks they served at some party?

But I’m writing about last night because it’s really a microcosm of what a weird, exciting and, also, weird place Austin can be when the festival is in town.

After hanging out with a couple of my KXT buddies, we parted ways around 9:15 p.m. They were heading to Stubbs to try to catch the Alabama Shakes and Andrew Bird as part of NPR’s annual big music showcase. And I was heading to an event on the opposite side of town that started at 11.

With 90 minutes to kill, I did the thing that makes coming to events like this great: I pulled up the SXSW app and looked to see what was going on within a few blocks of where I was standing. As luck would have it, a movie was starting at the Paramount Theater in about five minutes. Sold.

I can’t count the number of times when I’ve just walked into a movie at a festival that I had no plans on seeing and it ended up being one of the best things I see. Maybe I’m a bad judge of potential. But the documentary I saw, Searching for Sugar Man, is one of the most exhilarating I’ve seen in a while.

It’s about a folk musician mysteriously named Rodriguez who puts out a pair of albums in the early 70s. They don’t sell and he gets dropped by his label. But somehow, the albums make it to South Africa. And they are huge. Rodriguez is mentioned in the same breath as Elvis, and one person in the film says Rodriguez was way bigger in the country than the Rolling Stones. But every South African also knew that Rodriguez famously called it a career by setting himself on fire on stage. Or shooting himself after finishing a song. Urban myths can be tough to track down.

Here’s where Searching for Sugar Man gets tough to write about. So I’m throwing up a SPOILER ALERT. If you don’t want to know what happens, skip the next THREE paragraphs.

Fast forward to the late ’90s, when a couple of huge Rodriguez fans decide to track down what really happened to their hero. They call his old record label. They search his lyrics for clues. And they finally post a query online that is answered by one of Rodriguez’s daughters. As it turns out, he’s alive and well and working as a home remodeler in Detroit.

The second half of the film follows Rodriguez’s triumphant trip to South Africa, where he plays a string of sold out shows to people who can’t believe their idol is actually alive and playing for them.

After the film, director Malik Bendjelloul took the stage for a Q&A. And who did he have with him? Rodriguez! Now, keep in mind, this is a guy who no one in the theater had ever heard of 90 minutes ago. But after the movie, the place erupted when this newly minted musical legend appeared. That’s the power of film.

Having witnessed that miracle, it was off to the event I mentioned earlier – a party for VH1 Rock Docs at Austin’s newish W hotel. VH1 has made a few really strong music docs of late – last year’s Foo Fighters movie, this year’s Bob Marley film – that provide a nice bit of programming for the channel.

Going to an event at the W when you’re at SXSW is just strange. It’s like being transported for a moment back to Dallas. Gone is the scraggly SXSW music crowd, and in its place is a buffed and polished replacement. Not making any judgments here – it is what it is.

Unfortunately, at this point I fit in a lot tighter with the festival crowd as I was sporting my Art Con 5 T-shirt and jeans when everyone else looked as if they’d just gone to the groomers. Except for one guy: Reggie Watts.

For those unfamiliar, Watts is a singer and comedian who shows up on late night talk shows on occasion. But at SXSW, he’s been everywhere. He joined LCD Soundsystem on stage in Shut Up and Play the Hits, which I saw Saturday night. Sunday night, he performed at a party I went to sponsored by Funny or Die. Tomorrow he’s performing a live accompaniment to the 1985 film Legend. And here he was again!

Now, believe me when I say I’m not the type who bothers famous people for a picture. It’s kinda frowned upon in this business. But I made an exception in this case because my interest in Watts doesn’t stem from his singing or comedy abilities. I like the guy because he’s got the most insane afro I’ve ever seen on a human head. Check out the pic.

Souvenir photo in hand, I was about to call it a night when I saw someone who looked familiar. After a quick double take, I realized it was Billy Corgan. Only he wasn’t all rock starred out. Instead, his trademark bald dome was covered by one of those fishing hats like Jack Lemmon wears in Grumpy Old Men. In one hand he had a bottle of water and in the other, a paperback. Does this guy know how to party or what?

On the way out, the nice folks at VH1 handed me a little swag bag, as they do at these sorts of things. In it (I kid you not): a bag of enchilada-flavored Doritos and a DVD of what looked to be old episodes of Soul Train. Of course!

After leaving the hotel, I waited at the corner to cross the street and head back to my car when I noticed another celeb – only this time it was someone who I imagined most SXSW attendees were probably less familiar with. Standing next to me was former Texas Longhorn and current Cincinnati Bengal Cedric Benson. As a UT grad myself, and having already broken my no-pictures-with-celebs rule once, maybe I should ask? But then I remembered Benson was arrested just two years ago in a bar fight on 6th St. We were standing on 3rd. Better not risk it.

After a five minute walk, I was in the car headed home. But just to recap, in a three hour span I saw: An NFL star, a rock star dressed like Jack Lemmon, Austin temporarily turned into Dallas and a man seemingly rise from the dead.

It was all that and a bag of chips (and a Soul Train DVD).