SXSW started as a music festival and the films came later. One of the joys of the current SXSW Conference, which took place in Austin, TX, from March 8-17, is the film series called “24 Beats Per Second”. The series explores music through film. Two highlights in the series this year, which included 18 films, were The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash and Bluebird.
Before seeing these films, I thought I knew all about Johnny Cash. I was wrong. And, I knew nothing about the Bluebird Cafe, and that made me sad.
The Gift in the title of the Johnny Cash biopic refers to a comment made by his mother. When Cash’s body was crashing into puberty and his voice changed from little boy to deep baritone, his mother called his voice “a gift”. It turned out she was right.
That voice fills this film due to a discovery of cassette tapes that Cash recorded while on the tour bus between shows. It is a unique circumstance when a new film can be narrated by its subject, gone so many years ago.
This and other new material found their way into the film due to a discovery of previously unknown archival material and the efforts of filmmaker Thom Zimny, helped by the Cash estate.
Zimny, who previously created films about Elvis Presley and Bruce Springsteen, chose to make the recording of the concert at Folsom Prison the pivot point of the story. From there he went forward and backward in time, to Cash’s first marriage, his guilt over his older brother’s accidental death, his spiritual longings, and his battles with addiction.
Although I once spent a week in Nashville, trying to hit every iconic country music spot I could, I missed the Bluebird Cafe. It’s no wonder. It isn’t near the Grand Ole Opry or downtown. It sits in a strip mall between a barber shop and a beauty parlor.
So, why is it important? It altered the course of country music history, launching the careers of megastars such as Garth Brooks, Faith Hill, Kacey Musgraves, Taylor Swift and more.
Director Brian Loschiavo, born in Philadelphia, spent a decade in LA, eventually becoming a producer for Disney/ABC. But his love of Music City caused him to relocate there and found Riverside Entertainment. He searched for the magic of the Bluebird in this film.
The Bluebird Cafe started as just that: a 100-seat cafe. In 1982, Amy Kurland, a recent graduate from culinary school, followed her dream and opened her eatery. Someone suggested they invite some bands to play there on the weekends. The Bluebird was small, so having a band set up in one end of the restaurant didn’t work well. They decided to go with a less complicated format and move singers to the middle of the room.
That made it the cool spot for singer/songwriters including Keith Urban, Dierks Bentley and Vince Gill. They could see the people listening to their songs and gauge their reactions.
When the TV series Nashville began in 2012, they decided to make the Bluebird part of the story. Rather than film in the tiny site, they built an exact replica. Now, 70,000 people per year visit the Bluebird Cafe.
The documentary Bluebird was, of course all filmed in the real location, for which Director of Photography Jeff Molyneaux deserves laurels. In a small crowded location, it is hard for a film crew to fade into the background. Molyneaux did an amazing job of remaining unobtrusive, while capturing the mood and spirit of the visitors.
My favorite segment was when Taylor Swift dropped in unannounced. One of her fan-girls was in the audience. The girl’s melt-down defines what it means to be a totally devoted fan. Other country stars who appear in the film include Trisha Yearwood, Pam Tillis, Steve Earle, and Maren Morris.
The SXSW audience for Bluebird was treated with a serenade on stage after the film by songwriters who have played at the Bluebird, including Nashville star Charles Estan.