Thursday, 16 October 2014

AUSTIN TO BOSTON - BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL review

Charting the journey of a group of bands on the Communion record label as they embark on a cross country tour, Austin to Boston was screened as part of the 2014 BFI London Film Festival's Sonic strand.

Filmed during a tour that took place after the 2012 SXSW festival, Austin to Boston features Ben Howard, The Staves, Nathaniel Rateliff and a number of other musicians playing a number of small venues on an almost idyllic tour while travelling 3000 miles together in a caravan of camper vans.

The majority of subjects are young British musicians, and the film (and the tour) at first appears to be an idealistic and potentially blinkered journey into Americana, with a drawling voiceover delivered by Gill Landry, a fellow musician and a comparatively elder statesman of folk music who joined them on the tour. His narration is the backbone to the film, deep and rewarding and offering some poetic lines that could have sounded cloying if delivered by anyone else.

"You can make a friend for life in just a couple of days on the road, because it will show you what they are made of quicker than a hundred pints in any pub."

As well as capturing some mesmerising stage performances and camper van collaborations, the film also takes the odd detour, such as a rather emotional homecoming for Nathaniel Rateliff who visits the intersection where his father died, reflecting on whether he would have been proud of his successes. It's a brief example of what drives him as a musician and something that is left largely untold for the younger British musicians. For them, it is the journey they are currently on that is their only clear motivation, affording them the opportunity to discover new musical opportunities.

The best example of this, and quite probably the highlight of the entire film, is as the tour approaches Evanstown, The Staves (the English folk trio comprised of the Staveley-Taylor sisters) hit upon the idea of covering the Sufjan Stevens song Chicago. It's a beautiful song performed wonderfully with their impressive ability to harmonise together; a love letter to a city repurposed as a love letter to the entire tour.

"Went to Chicago, in a van, with my friends. I fell in love with the place, I fell in love with the place..."

Awash with plaid shirts and scruffy beards, Austin to Boston is a road trip film that's worth hitching a ride from. As a showcase for the featured artists, it works. It's hard to say how representative of the real tour this documentary is, with its use of aesthetically pleasing (but not totally practical) camper vans to travel in and occasional use of grainy 8mm footage generating a risk of style over substance.

It's possible that they've managed to catch lightning in a bottle or possibly merely padded out their own myth with some great filmmaking. However, the camaraderie between the bands is palpable and never rings false, and the film is able to transcend any initial cynicism one might have to deliver some revelatory live performances by a group of artists on a journey of musical discovery. Be warned though; it will also make you want to immediately go and buy every album they've ever made.



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