SXSW Film Review – Thank You A Lot
Thank You a Lot
Through mass media like television and movies, I’ve always viewed the music industry as two different worlds. There’s the high-profile world of professional musicians, the kind that wind up on the covers of magazines, want only brown M&Ms and have roadies pick groupies out of the crowd to go backstage. Then there’s the real world of music, what’s perceived as the indie scene; where you thanklessly work hard for no money, while you get the pleasure of driving around the county in a beat-up van with six other narcissistic ‘musicians’, and an introvert lead-singer who writes every detail of your lives down in a journal that one day gets published. Movies about the ‘real’ music scenes, have in essence always tried to capture whatever it is that separates these two worlds, and why that’s significant. While movies about the ‘professional’ world don’t care about that topic, and instead want to dive head first into the deluge of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. Apparently affluence truly is the lap of luxury.
Thank You A Lot attempts to situate itself in between these worlds, in a way. The story follows Jack Hand (Blake DeLong), a struggling, up-and-coming agent, who represents a local indie band called The Wintermen (played by members of the band Hundred Visions), and a hip-hop artist played by Da’Shade Moonbeam. Things aren’t really going well, and some of that could be due to Jack’s approach of hustling everyone he knows to get a leg up. The management company Jack works for delivers the coup de grace in the form of an impossible task, sign Jack’s aging father, a local country singer who was primed to make it big but never did, or lose his job. Jack’s father James is played by legendary Texas country singer James Hand, essentially playing himself. Why James is the impossible task is a bit what the film is about, but ultimately comes down to an effort to examine authenticity amidst a world that seeks to subvert, hide and manipulate communication in order to achieve lofty dreams of fame and fortune.
Jack’s struggle lies between a troubled relationship with James and an ever increasing series of repercussions directly due to Jack’s hustling and manipulation of those around him. The line that separates the indie world from the real blurs with hyperbolic tit-for-tat verbal interactions that Jack takes part in. He operates within the diegesis of the film as if everything is like Jerry McGuire. And as far as the way the movie presents this, it is. Which is where things get a bit frustrating. Frustrating, because my experience with watching the movie was like this, at first I wanted to shrug it off, then I grew comfortable with it and its approach of behaving like we’re existing in the professional world, while actually living in the indie, or real. But as the movie progressed I waivered in my emotions as we cut from the streets and bars of Austin to the countryside, where James Hand waxes about emotions and fear of being judged for simply expressing himself. His musings and life as a cattle hand are being documented by a grad student with a desire to bring an appreciation to a musician who feels unjustly didn’t get his moment in the spotlight. Jack in his attempt to reconnect with his father and persuade him to sign a contract for representation, builds a relationship with the grad student, Allison (Robyn Rikoon).
In the past couple years, thanks to record companies like Light in the Attic (LITA), musicians like James Hand have been getting a new found moment of appreciation and enjoyment. Sixto Rodriguez was recently brought into the public consciousness through the documentary Searching for Sugar Man and LITA re-issuing his two albums that never caught on during their initial runs back in the 70s. Thank You A Lot seems to be playing on this moment of archival resurgence, but it also seems to be critiquing it as a hipster fad, which is echoed in both Jack’s condemnation of such practices and his disdain for indie hipster bands, who he represents, and James Hand’s speeches about the crippling pain that fear of being judged for his music brings him. It’s as if James’ explanations of his failure to be a success are blamed on his fearful emotions that no one else understands. The approach comes off like a plea for consideration for these aging musicians who are recluses, who just want to be left alone.
James Hand is a presence in his scenes, someone world-worn who you want to learn from, and Blake DeLong is interesting to watch as he attempts sly persuasions and a knowledged confidence beyond his years. Robyn Rikoon’s character is almost too confrontational to be believable, but then everything seems to be dialed up to 11, so when Jack asks her to dial it down, it almost feels like he’s asking the whole of the movie, which in a way complies after the request is made. There’s a strong filmmaking confidence from director Matt Muir that is present, and there’s a lot here to enjoy beyond a critic’s nitpicking of details. The composition of Jack’s world in the music scene of Austin juxtaposed by the rural countryside of James’ existence helps give the movie its own authenticity in its look at how that fits in with success.