A Documentary 40 Years in the Making

Filmmaker Keith Maitland talks the music and community of A Song for You: The Austin City Limits Story

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A Documentary 40 Years in the Making

Iggy Pop writhes on stage, punching the air and gyrating like a primal animal while Josh Homme and the band crank out “Lust for Life.” At 68, Pop has more energy than someone half his age. “I think I wore you guys out,” he jokes before playing another 40 minutes of raw, unbridled music, the Austin skyline shining bright behind him. But it’s not the actual skyline, it’s the backdrop at the Austin City Limits studio and this is Pop’s first time on the program. With his recent hints at retirement, it makes sense that ACL would choose him for the first episode of the show’s 42nd season.

That’s right, Austin City Limits is now in its 42nd season, and there are no signs of slowing down. Airing on PBS, ACL is the longest-running music series in television history. Showcasing everyone from Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Radiohead, Beck, Wilco, the Pixies and about 80 others, the program has brought some of the greatest musicians in the world into the homes of millions of people. There’s no question that ACL has a place in history, but the actual history of the show isn’t as well known, until now.

Director Keith Maitland has two films at this year’s SXSW festival, Documentary Feature Competition film—and Grand Jury Winner—Tower, and 24 Beats Per Second selection A Song For You: The Austin City Limits Story, which sheds light not only on the history of Austin City Limits, but what’s to come, and the tight-knit group that makes it run.

Utilizing a mix of concert footage (both archival and shot for the film), interviews and behind-the-scenes material, Maitland depicts the intricacies involved in the show, while also exploring its grander impact and growth. Paste sat down with Maitland to discuss A Song For You and the intermingling of music, film, community and Austin.

Paste: Congratulations on having two films in the festival. How’s it going for you?
Keith Maitland: It’s wild. I’m assuming this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so I’m trying to make the most of it. The most exciting thing for me is that there are really people in this town who are connected to both stories and subjects intimately. There’s a lot of overlap of the two communities of this film, and both films really reflect what our bigger community of Austin is about.

The story of Tower [Ed. note: the 1966 sniper shootings at the University of Texas at Austin] is the worst thing that Austin ever exported to the world, and Austin City Limits is the best thing that Austin has given to the world. I’m thrilled to be a part of both, and I’m thrilled to present them both here.

I love SXSW. I’ve made three films; they’ve all premiered at SXSW. Actually, my first night in Austin was at SXSW in 1994 when I was a senior in high school. I came here for spring break and just fell in love with Austin. It’s my home. It brings the world to us, which is nice. And then everyone goes away, which is also nice.

Paste: There’s so much history and so much music in the film. How did you get involved with this project and how did you approach the structure?
Maitland: We started in the fall of 2013. What happened was my other film Tower, I pitched it to PBS, and they were interested. A few weeks later, I got a call from an executive at PBS in D.C. who said, “I know you’re busy with Tower, but there’s another project I thought you might be interested in. Have you ever heard of Austin City Limits?” and naturally I had, so he says, “Well, they’re looking for a director for a project. Would you want to meet with them?” I said, “Of course, yes.”

So, I went into that meeting in October of 2013. There was a process of a series of interviews where I heard what they had in mind, and I told them what I would want to do. Basically what I told them was that I’ve snuck backstage to just about every concert I’ve been at since I was 15 years old, and the kind of film I would want to make would capture the feeling of what it is to sneak backstage—not to be a part of their crew, but to be an observer of their crew, who is a little bit giddy to be there but really sees the details, and the type of person who kind of talks their way onto Willie Nelson’s bus and gets to hang out in the corner for an hour or two, and then when the show starts, leaves backstage to grab a spot right in front of the singer. I got to do all of those things in the making of the film, so it was really great.

Paste: You had nearly 40 years’ worth of bands to choose from. How did you select which to include? Willie Nelson, Ray Charles—those seem like pretty easy and essential picks, but how did you arrive at Alabama Shakes or Wilco over other bands?
Maitland: We pitched a twofold documentary, honoring the history of the show through the 40 years and then embedding with them for the 40th season. So, they basically chose the current-day artists by booking the 40th season, which I didn’t have any input into, but I was thrilled to be along for the ride. So, through that we got Alabama Shakes, Jeff Tweedy, Thao & the Get Down Stay Down and Avett Brothers. We also had Gary Clark Jr., who’s in season 41, but we’re looking to the future as well, and that’s what I said: “I want to start the film with the last taping of season 39 and end the film at the beginning of season 41. The meat of it will be season 40,” so when they look back it’s like, Wow. That’s a great opportunity. I had never thought I would be putting a camera in Beck’s face, but here we are.

And then the history was just a massive undertaking. But I told them when we were putting the project together… They said, “Well, who are your favorite artists from the history of the show?” I said, “The first two people I’m going to interview out of my own personal interest are Willie Nelson and Pixies.” They said, “Oh, Pixies? Yeah, we did a taping with them.” I said, “You did do a taping with them, and as far as I’m concerned, that is a pivotal taping, because I can’t think of a harder rocking act that you had on the show before the Pixies,” and since the Pixies—well, Nine Inch Nails, Queens of the Stone Age, and 50 other.

Paste: You were in NYC for 10 years before, working in the industry. What’s the difference between working in Austin versus working somewhere like New York?
Maitland: New York is incredible, but I never felt a part of a community. The industry was so segmented in New York. You worked in TV or you worked in features. If you worked in features, you worked in union features, or you worked in non-union features. You worked in commercials, or you worked in music videos.

In Austin, you work in anything that will pay and a lot of things that don’t. The documentary filmmaker may also be a gaffer on a feature and producer for a commercial series and web host. Everyone just does a little bit of everything, and you have to, because it’s a secondary market.

I produce, direct, shoot and edit. I didn’t edit the two films we have playing here, only because I was doing two films at once, and it was the first time I actually brought on an editor. It was the best move I could have made, especially for A Song for You, because the editor that I brought in, Austin Reedy, is a musician who can play basically any instrument, and there’s a lot of music editing. There’s 70 songs in 90 minutes in that film, so he really had to do a lot of surgery on a lot of the songs. I’m a good editor, but I’m a little more blunt on the music, whereas he could fold in … “This is a 4/4, so I want to edit it on the 4.” It’s like, “Can we make a cut here?” and he says, “Well, there’s a key change there.” And we’re like, “Oh, okay, um…”

And then some of the footage I put… We tag-teamed some scenes sometimes, and I cut something in, and he was like, “Hey, I’ve got to move that B-roll around. I’m sorry, but that guy is playing in G, and you’ve got him on an A…” “Okay…” We’re like, “Who’s going to know that?” And he was like, “I’m going to know that.” And he did, and he’s great. I would challenge any musician to watch this film and poke holes in the edits.

Paste: Both A Song For You and Tower deal with community in a big way. Is that innate in you, or is that something that has grown over time, and what importance do you place on community?
Maitland: That’s a great question. I don’t know. But you’re right, I’m interested in community, and I’m interested in the individual’s role in community. Life for me and art, which is a reflection of life, is always about, “Who am I and how do I fit in with what’s happening around me?” And I think that is the question that all communities begin with, and as people figure out how they fit in, communities are born. We have a shared interest and a shared experience. In relationship to Tower, it’s a shared experience that bonds these people together on the campus of a college. You’re automatically in a community by signing on as a member of this college. As music fans, we are in a community of people of shared interests, and it’s one of the most interesting things. Music is more subjective than any other aesthetic area in that people you know and love who you share a love for the Pixies with will also love some band that you can’t stomach. There’s no two people in the world of all the special snowflakes; none of us love the exact same bands and hate the exact same bands, because music speaks to something inside of us that tells us who we are. So often we identify ourselves as, “I love Nirvana.” “Oh, I don’t get Tom Waits.” “I couldn’t date someone that doesn’t get Tom Waits!” You know? And there’s no other … Nobody does that with painting. Books. Yes, people have relationships with certain authors or certain books, but they’re not judged harshly—maybe the tightest literary circles that I’m not invited into. But with music, we all have a relationship with music. The only people that I don’t trust at all implicitly in the world are people who just say, “Eh, I don’t like music.” It’s like saying, “I don’t like breathing.”

Paste: As someone who has been involved with PBS and public funding on a number of their projects, what advantages and what importance does public funding have that other forms of funding don’t offer?
Maitland: I’ve been the great beneficiary of public television and public funding, so I’m 100 percent pro-public television. It’s necessary to our culture to have a public voice in mass media and to keep commercialism at bay in at least one narrow sliver of the landscape. What public television is known for, what they’re great at, is giving people who don’t want to be bombarded by capitalism-driven entertainment and information, giving them a refuge—whether it’s Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Bob Ross, or Austin City Limits, or Independent Lens, these are all to me … PBS is a destination, and it serves every generation from toddlers to Downton Abbey.

So, PBS is the right place for a thing like Austin City Limits, and PBS is an important part of our culture, and it needs to be protected and preserved. The other thing I think is that it needs to be expanded on. I don’t think there’s nearly enough money available via the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Austin City Limits wouldn’t have existed—and it certainly wouldn’t have survived—in any kind of commercial television network in the 1970s when it started. There is zero chance, 0.0 chance, that Austin City Limits would have survived beyond a season or two if it had been on ABC or NBC. There weren’t many other options in 1974.