[From March 9th - 17th, Flixist will be providing coverage from South by Southwest 2013 in Austin, TX. Prepare yourselves for reviews, interviews, features, photos, videos, and all types of shenanigans!]
I'd originally planned to catch a lot more music last Friday at SXSW, but plans changed a little bit. Instead I tried to catch up with some writing (I'm still catching up right now) and wound up going to three movies that day, two of which sounded interesting but I hadn't originally intended to see.
Los Wild Ones was one of these two films, a documentary that focuses on the LA-based rockabilly label Wild Records. These kinds of spontaneous screenings happen to me at least once or twice at every festival: I go into a film that was generally off my radar, and I hope I come out of the theater glad that I took a chance.
There's an old-fashioned ethos behind Wild Records. On the one hand, they're a rockabilly-only label. It's retro rock and roll with the right kind of panache -- pompadours, bangs -- but played with a swagger like it's a cousin to punk more than some kind of nostalgic trip. There's no room for irony on the label in the same way that irony at the rockabilly shows is non-existent. The other old-fashioned thing about Wild Records: a resistance to going digital. Reb Kennedy, the head of Wild Records, dismisses digital music as crap and low quality, and prefers to issue the work of his artists on vinyl (and CD, though records are the real passion). It's one of the many things he says with total candor in his thick Irish accent, though I wondered if he'd eventually have to compromise.
There's an interesting cultural dynamic going on with Wild Records. Reb's from Dublin, a guy with a serious stare and a knack for good taste. One of the interviewees in the film recalls Reb hanging out in front of a Dublin record shop asking people what they were going to buy before letting them in. People thought he worked there. Nah, he was just hanging out. When we first see Reb at work, he's sifting through stacks of unsorted 45s -- on tables, on chairs, on the floor, on bookshelves. The Wild mastertapes are out in the backyard in boxes or on tarpaulins. It's not always like that with Wild, but maybe it kind of is in some metaphorical way.
The artists on Wild Records are predominantly Hispanic, and all of them are based in Los Angeles. The music they make and the way they dress is the timeless stuff of 20th century Americana, and there's actually a lot of crossover between groups, with people playing in each others's bands. Some, like Marlene Perez and Victor Mendez of The Rhythm Shakers, dated. There it is -- the modern American melting pot, cultures making music together, and they've got greased hair and a Telecaster and think iTunes can go screw itself. Well, only Reb speaks for the last bit. The artists on label would rather make the jump forward with digital distribution in addition to pressing vinyl. It's a contentious point, but that's not the source of drama in Los Wild Ones.
Director Elise Salomon and her team stuck close to the Wild Records family for a few months to chronicle the regular goings-on at the label and in the lives of the artists. What we see are talented musicians trying to find the right balance between their passion and their personal lives. For Gizzelle, it's about being a single mom and a frontwoman at the same time. For Luis Arriaga, he needs to deal with some major changes that upend his routine and make the future uncertain. And Reb just wants to keep his artists happy and the label alive, somehow, someway.
These are not inventions or artificial concerns. This is the thing that artists deal with everyday. There was a piece in The Onion posted yesterday that, like their best writing, was funny because it's also the truth: Find The Thing You're Most Passionate About, Then Do It On Nights And Weekends For The Rest Of Your Life. That's exactly what these men and women are doing. It may be difficult, it may even seem a little sad that people sacrifice so much to do what they care about, but watching them up on stage and hearing them talk about the scene and the music, the struggles are worthwhile. Think Sisyphus with the boulder. Now think of him doing a five-song set at the top of that hill before going back to push the boulder back up the hill again.
But what's important about Wild Records is that everyone helps look after each other. Not only are they playing in each other's bands, they're hanging out and making sure everyone's all right. Reb is not just the head of the label. There are some parts of Los Wild Ones where he seems like a surrogate father figure. He'll scold when he needs to, and he'll be the jerk because he has to get the best out of his artists. When people are in a bind, Reb is there for them, and during an especially moving part of the movie, he helps pick one of his artists up out of a really deep emotional pit.
That's why the drama in Los Wild Ones isn't over squabbles between artists and management or rivalries within the label. Everyone involved in Wild Records seems to like it because it's more than just a label or a group of like-minded friends -- Wild Records is a family. Part of the draw of the film is seeing Salomon champion the music on the label, all of which is solid rock and roll. More than the music, though, Salomon is interested in the family dynamics revealed simply from these people doing what they love.
When Reb talks about recording his artists, he says that he wants the occasional mistake or screw up in there. He'd rather get the performance on tape rather than refine it through a process. It's raw and authentic, and that's what the spirit of Wild is all about. It's sort of how this surrogate family functions too in Salomon's doc. They love each other, they play their hearts out, and they keep going. The good and the bad is all caught on tape, but the important thing is that it sounds fine regardless, and it's real.