Viewed 3 days ago, January 17 2009: Athens, Ga. – Inside/Out, a documentary directed by Tony Gayton.
Explores the issue of why the town of Athens, Georgia seems to be a fertile ground for musicians and other artists, at least from a 1987 vantage point. There are appearances by and interviews with many various local musicians and artists, including some representation by the two best-known musical products of that area, those being R.E.M. and the B-52s. Unfortunately the documentary failed (for me) to clearly define its premise, let alone examine it. While it was entertaining enough, and it was fun to see the activity in and around this town and listen to first person accounts from career artists (and hopefuls), I didn’t come out feeling very educated about the topic. Part of this, I think, was the failure of the documentary to identify its subjects. I often had no idea who was on the screen, as they were rarely or sporadically identified, and even when identified there wasn’t a lot of information about who they were or what their role was in the community. One of the main figures in the documentary was someone who we eventually found was called “Orf” – but other than seeing that he had a pretty high opinion of himself, who he was or why we should be hearing from him was never revealed. There was also an ongoing time warp: it seemed that footage was from different years or different eras (e.g., in some scenes members of the B-52s talking about their current fame and looking back to Athens, while in other scenes we see Peter Buck of R.E.M. hanging out on a sidewalk and reflecting on the niceties of not being well known), but I could never be sure, as the paucity of information applied here. It was almost an “if you don’t know, I’m certainly not going to tell you” approach.
As I say, though, there was plenty of fascinating material. Some readings by a fellow named John Seawright who had a deep Johnny Cash -like voice and looked a bit like Buddy Ebsen or Michael Nesmith appealed to me. (Sadly, a web search indicates that he died some years ago.) Towards the end there were interviews with some ex-members of group “Pylon” (who were mentioned with reverence throughout the film up to this point). We learn that the group broke up when their agent tried to book them on a tour with U2; it seemed they really didn’t want to be bothered. Now, or rather when interviewed, they were working fairly menial jobs and apparently seemed to barely remember being in a band, nor did they want to return to it.
On a meta level, I had problems with the DVD. The 2.1 track played just fine, but the 5.1 track was noisy. There was also a commentary track that was added some years after the documentary was mde, but this was also too noisy to bear. A shame, as it might have exposed some of the things that flew over my head.
I did find this film entertaining, which almost goes without saying; I rarely see a documentary about (and featuring) real music and art that I don’t find appealing. I only wish it had been more informative, as with similar-themed documentaries (i.e., about music in a particular city) such as Made in Sheffield or even with documentaries about specific groups, e.g. Edgeplay (about The Runaways) etc, etc, where you can learn a great deal even if you come in fairly ignorant about the subject. This one may have been intended more for insiders than for outsiders, which is fine – that’s just a matter of defining the intended audience.