Welcome to our sixth day of SXSW coverage (catch up on it all here).
SXSW has felt off this year, like a party that has gone on too long and now everyone is awkwardly trying to exit quietly before anyone notices. The film portion of SXSW has been consistent if not as strong as some prior years, so it’s mainly the music portion that has me feeling blah. Maybe SXSW is buckling under its own weight or maybe I’m disillusioned and uninspired and SXSW is amplifying that for me. Maybe both.
That blah feeling could be why Danny Says struck such a nerve with me. A cleverly executed and uniquely styled documentary on music biz legend Danny Fields, Danny Says may seem in description like yet another SXSW documentary on the music industry, but it went far beyond that. Combining interviews, archival footage, and animated segments, Danny Says is an attempt to fairly summarize a brilliantly messy life without ruining the chaotic charm of that life. Stretching from ‘50s gay culture in New York and Boston to the rise of Andy Warhol’s Factory to the LA rock scene to the ascent of punk, this is an expansive work that somehow never feels bloated or overly navel gazy.
Fields is a music figure who doesn’t fit neatly into industry jargon but the term he preferred for a time was “company freak,” i.e. a hippie on the payroll of a record label whose job is to comfort other hippies and translate for the suits. But Fields also served as one of rock’s first “press agents,” helping bands market themselves to the media world he came out of and keeping them out of too much trouble. That latter end of his occupation was especially useful during his stints as a kind of manager for The Stooges and The Ramones, two groups prone to trouble and mischief.
To Fields’ industry friends, though, he’s a “fuel line,” an energetic connector who knows everyone worth knowing and is always hip to where culture is heading. Danny Says excels at revealing this element of Fields’ persona, capturing great anecdotes while simultaneously displaying the clear affection industry figures still have for Fields. Even more striking are the interview segments where Fields opens up about his frustrations with his lot in life and his belief that all of his “beautiful” days are long gone.
As Alice Cooper of all people put it, Fields is one of those people who is blowing around in the wind, making unseen contributions to an artist’s development, contributions that are secretly the most important elements of a career. Diehard music fans have likely seen a lot of backwards looking documentaries on legendary careers but I can say without hesitation that Danny Says is one of the finest because it is so willing to let its subject open up about his disappointments and missed opportunities. Its biggest flaw is that it ends abruptly, with essentially no discussion of what Fields has done in the time since The Ramones voted him out as their manager. I guess we’ll have to wait for a sequel.
We Like It Like That
Unfortunately, We Like It Like That did not have this issue. Breathlessly covering a subgengre of a subgenre of a subgenre, We Like It Like That suffered from an uncertainty over how to structure its story of boogaloo music. At the start, We Like It Like That is refreshing, gathering together the major players of the New York boogaloo scene to have them discuss the origins of the music and life in the barrio in general. In the process of discussing the way black and Latin culture collided in New York to form exciting hybrid music forms, these interview subjects also paint a vivid portrait of life in the city at that time, of the bonding between these people forced together and also of the differences that still kept them apart.
The music itself is fascinating too, an evolutionary step up from mambo and an ancestor to what would eventually become the salsa catchall genre tag. The musicians interviewed all have a clear love of the music they made in the ‘60s and the rivalries they had with mambo musicians who were worried about boogaloo’s ascent still come across as fresh. The movie details the cutthroat approaches both camps took in their effort to snuff out the other, from slashed gig prices to the formation of promotional coalitions seeking to monopolize Latin music on the East Coast. There is a surprising amount of drama present in a documentary about a music that has basically been forgotten by the masses.
First time director Mathew Ramirez Warren struggles harder with the narrative structure of the film in its back third, spending a little too much time on a reunion of the boogaloo pioneers, following them from an impromptu jam session with some new boogaloo acts to a full on concert in New York. The concert sequence shows full performances from some of the musicians and seems to build to several endings, before finally reaching one last talking head sequence and fading out. We Like It Like That also suffered from being shown after Danny Says since it takes a less artful approach to the music doc format and comes across as bland and a little too much like a VH1 special. We Like It Like That is nonetheless a great primer for Latin music on the whole and ‘60s boogaloo in particular.
I’m still not too sure why I decided to end the night with the found footage thriller Hangman. I’m not big on found footage flicks in general — this one seemed especially likely to be a disaster — but I will say that it exceeded my expectations. Essentially Non-Paranormal Activity, Hangman is told through the perspective of a deranged serial killer stalking a family from within their own home. The masked killer silently follows the family’s day to day activities through the use of expertly placed surveillance cameras, occasionally wandering down from his post to do things like leave their orange juice out and steal the daughter’s report card.
You know that eventually he will stop fucking around with the family and step up his terrorism, but the film gets a good amount of tension out of the “will he or won’t he stab them now” set-up. The killer’s antics frequently strain belief, most notably when the youngest kid starts telling mom and dad about the dreams he’s having involving a man with pantyhose on his head. But Hangman is very creepy, getting by not on jump scares but on an uneasy mood and a reminder that in the places where we feel safest we are often most vulnerable.
For what it is, Hangman is effective and startling albeit also dumb and cliché. It’s neither the most inventive nor the worst found footage film you’ll encounter, and as a brainless movie to flip on whenever you’re at home during a nightmarish storm, it will do.
Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City. When he isn’t doing that, he plays drums for Denise and gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.