Even the most infrequent concert-goer knows the mix of curiosity, anticipation, and mild dread that comes with tracking down a new, back-door, back-alley, backwater venue, and in a sense, Todd P. Goes to Austin is a documentary about that feeling. Director Jason Buim follows Todd Patrick, or Todd P., as he prepares for a series of free concerts to run simultaneously with the SXSW film festival. Although the shows Todd plans are meant to be outdoor, rather than inside one of those dingy venues, the film still captures that same blend of feelings from the musician's side of things, showcasing their journey in a battered, half-dead van, ostensibly towards Austin but really into the great unknown.
Too many modern documentaries are more about a scene or a topic rather than an actual person, but Todd is a solid anchor for the scene being covered, and a good interview subject. He clearly and decisively explains his love of music, which he calls "the most visceral of all [art] forms." In turn, his passion for music informs his passion for concerts. He insists that music reminds people "that they're not alone in the world," and it's obvious the concert experience is an extension of that. At no point during the trip does anything look particularly organized, and there's not a hint of glamour or glitz, but Todd's cool composure never wavers. Interviews with the bands Todd picks up along the way are less focused, with topics ranging from lip gloss to having to use plastic bags in lieu of the Taco Bell restroom, but everyone seems happy to be there.
When the doc's various subjects aren't being chatted with, the doc is lacking in focus. Although Buim accurately determined Todd was "the guy", he seems to have chosen the trip to Austin out of a hat, hoping the events that occur would basically write the picture for him, providing some sort of backbone for the film. Instead, the footage is basically just a bunch of random stories from the road. It's funny, entertaining material, sure, but on the whole, it'd be better suited to an extra on a concert DVD for one or all of the bands involved than it is as a stand-alone feature. Buim drifts back and forth on the timeline, never locking in on film's supposed narrative, while songs (or snippets of songs, at least) are placed haphazardly throughout. Buim also shuffles an intriguing development all the way down to the last fifteen minutes -- something that might've been the center of a different documentary about the same time period.
Still, like a calm at the center of the storm, the film makes its way back around to Todd, whose passion for underground music inadvertently becomes the glue motivating the picture forward. Even if Buim has no grasp on the subject partially set forth at the beginning, the candid, warts-and-all, gas-station bathroom, side-of-the-road footage he and his various camerapeople have captured contribute to a strong sense of community or comraderie, and the footage from the bands' low-fi concerts effectively capture some of the feelings that Todd P. describes in his interviews. It's an infectious vibe that carries the viewer through, and may even lend itself to repeat viewings; a saving grace that probably puts Buim more on the right track than the wrong one. Fans of documentary filmmaking may be disappointed, but fans of the music will go home happy.
Microcinema goes with "awkward cartoon" for the DVD artwork, featuring a sort-of-funny-but-more-in-retrospect cartoon of the beat-up van that takes Todd and his passengers to Texas. The case is transparent plastic, with a banner of cartoon heads that may or may not belong to the band Best Fwends (it's visible in the movie behind them during their set) printed on the inside.
The Video and Audio
Todd P. Goes to Austin is, like the bands and tour it showcases, a no-budget, shot-on-the fly experience. Thus, the 1.85:1 presentation looks like you'd expect consumer-grade digital cameras to look: blurry, slightly washed out, fuzzy, jagged, etc. Dolby Digital 2.0 is equally authentic, with plenty of over-loud background noise, somewhat muddy lines, fading in and out as subjects get farther away from the camera, and a range that can't quite encompass all of the music that appears in the film. No subtitles or captions are provided.
An audio commentary by Jay Buim and the band Matt and Kim (Matt Johnson and Kim Schifino) is provided. Clearly the trio are pertty close friends, resulting in an informal, chatty commentary that veers heavily towards "hey, remember that?" and less towards information about the production. Like the film itself, it's a funny, endearing listen for fans of Matt and Kim, but perhaps not a necessary stop for the casual viewer.
A shaggy, duct-taped production about shaggy, duct-taped productions, Todd P. Goes to Austin is an example of both poor and fantastic documentary filmmaking. Even though Buim has a ways to go as an editor and storyteller, he's either got the eye for his subjects, or he just lucked out with this group of people. Recommended.
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