To anyone who’s a fan of country music, the Bluebird Cafe, Nashville, is the holy grail, a place of pilgrimage and wonder. People come from far and wide across the United States and beyond to visit this unassuming little hole in the wall. Why? It’s the most influential listening room in America, a hallowed ground where talent from Kathy Mattea and Garth Brooks to Maren Morris and Taylor Swift. Over the years it has become an icon, it’s where countless country singers have been discovered, and it’s a place of deep spiritual connection for so many.
Director: Brian Loschiavo
Release Date: March 14, 2019 (SXSW World premiere)
The story goes that 27-year-old Amy Kurland, a graduate of culinary school, set up the cafe in 1982. “It was bright yellow,” she recalls, “and a little run down!” In a street just past a McDonalds and next to a dry cleaners, it was hardly the most glamorous of locations. People reportedly still get lost when taking directions. But with a little TLC Amy and her team had the place fixed up and started using it as a cafe — and in time, open-mic nights started, musicians spread the word, and so was born the influential accident we know now.
Director Brian Loschiavo’s first feature film got off to a great start — beautifully shot, it gives the impression that the cafe is much larger than it is. In fact, in the Q&A following the screening he revealed that opening shots had to be captured through someone’s legs and underneath a table to give a sense of space. The space they were given to work with was little more than a few feet wide, yet the space never comes across as crowded. In fact, the best part of this film is that the way it make you feel like you’re in the room. Watching this at the world premiere at Austin’s Paramount Theater, surrounded by the film crew, critics, fans and musicians, I felt incredibly fortunate, and the immersive sound system was so impressive that it had an electrifying effect on everyone present. I really enjoyed the experience of being in a crowd where the anticipation and appreciation for the Bluebird, its music and its legacy was so strong.
The doc does a brilliant job of evoking all the senses of this cafe. “If only the camera could capture the smell!” laughs one interviewee. And a comment must be made on the sheer number of country stars and sensations interviewed or appearing in performances. Maren Morris, Vince Gill, Tom Schuyler, Taylor Swift, Brandy Clark, Tony Arata, Faith Hill. The list goes on. While it must have been difficult to acquire rights and fit everything in — in the Q&A, the team talked about how Taylor Swift’s schedule took at least a year to figure out — it’s certainly paid off and the result is a full and varied combination of stars, personnel and aspiring performers.
One of my favourite parts of this documentary was when they had musicians playing in the round, so that the audience could be part of the music and performers aren’t elevated onto a stage but placed in the middle of the room, reacting and responding to each other. One interviewee talks about the change that comes over people when the music starts playing: “You see people coming in, and they’re stiff and tense, sat near strangers. But once the music starts, something magical happens. Other people across the room will smile and nod to the music — everyone becomes part of the conversation.”
The most powerful performance during this set was Tenille Townes singing ‘Jersey on the Wall’. It’s a touching song that she sings with such conviction that there’s not a dry eye in the house. The editing this sequence is brilliant: using crisp shallow depth of field shots, the cinematographers and editing team have captured the warm atmospheric glow of fairy lights in contrast to the darkness outside the windows, and the effect is simply magical. Cut to shots of audience members wiping away tears and eagerly hanging onto every word: it’s no wonder it’s become so legendary.
There’s something pure, even spiritual, about the experience of listening to this music with others. Many interviewees make the point that “it’s just like having round a bunch of musician friends and enjoying being part of that community.” Given the time constraints the documentary wasn’t fully able to showcase every performance — but following the world premiere there was a wonderful set of live music, with performances of one of my favourite songs, Keith Urban’s ‘Blue Ain’t Your Colour’, performed by members of the film’s cast. Indeed, what the film does do very effectively is draw one’s attention to the meaning behind country music: the words are the most important element, telling a story that is deeply personal, sad, contemplative or reflective. With that kind of universal appeal, there’s no doubt that Loschiavo’s film will find its audience beyond the festival circuit.
The intimacy of the picture is what most impressed me: whether it’s just American hospitality or the disarming effect of music, there was something about the doc that felt tangible, as if it were welcoming its viewers home. It was pointed out in another interview that people come for the real thing, for the tactile sensation of feeling other people around you, and even in a screening of the film hundreds of miles away from its set, the payoff was evident. I think Bluebird does an important job of bringing country music to a bigger stage. It’s already a multi-million dollar industry, but whether you’re an aspiring musician or you’ve made it to the top, Bluebird shows that music is the great equaliser and celebrates artists and regular folk coming together and enjoying life. If anything, Bluebird will deepen your appreciation for the art of storytelling through music and the prodigious talents of those who are brave enough to put themselves out there.