If ever there was anyone more primed and ready to love the one-two punch of the beloved Athens, Ga documentary Athens, GA - Inside/Out and its accompanying soundtrack in a double whammy of southern goodness, it's me.
Written and directed by Tony Gayton, this is Athens before it became hyper-aware of itself and its reputation as the progenitor of all things musically and artistically desirable. A hipster haven before hipsters were ironic and the Liverpool of the southern United States.
In the spirit of full disclosure I should tell you that my husband was an Athens Ga, musician for years. And although I lived in Atlanta at the time, I saw so many familiar faces and places in this movie that I was lost in a haze of youthful melancholy for hours afterward. When I was there, it was my first view into the strange world of unfettered artistic expression and complete lack of fear. There were both absolute genius and steaming piles of artistic dung but they coexisted beautifully. With this revelation came a moment of crystal clarity: you didn't need to be in New York or LA to make something incredible for public scrutiny and consumption, it could be just for the bit of joy you got from doing it and for the sake of the process.
The film does a beautiful job of capturing the wild, seat-of-your-pants, creative fever that gripped so many young people that resided there. A hot bed of artistic freedom and cheap rents, Athens is the sleepy college town all other universities wish they had. You get Peter Buck wandering around in his pajamas and giving you a tour of the Elvis-themed bathroom, the world famous William Orten Carlton or Ort (giving off a dark Philip Seymour Hoffman vibe) waxing poetic on what makes Athens so special while holding his beer can prop, haunting performances by Dreams So Real, gut-punching tunes from Flat Duo Jets and Kilkenny Cats; for these reasons alone you should own this disc.
"Local artists, nice weather, nice people, good record stores" are the reasons Peter Buck lists for loving Athens and staying anchored there for so many years, but for all its unlikely oddball heroes, the town also churned out some of alternative rock's most powerful heavy hitters. Big time behemoths R.E.M and the B-52's bang out their songs alongside early performances by Pylon, Love Tractor, and The Squalls. Even with this footage from their musical infancy, some of these bands showcase what a launching pad this place was in the late '80s and early '90s.
True, some of the music hasn't aged so well, but the sparkling gems of the scene just make a more telling point after all these years. Those are the songs that still stand up over two decades later.
For the most part I stay away from old things repackaged to seem new with all the bells and whistles of extras touted on the cover but the wonderful album of music that now accompanies this must-have documentary really makes it worth the bother. The DVD also includes extra material not previously available like bonus scenes and interviews.
Maybe all this wouldn't seem as fascinating to someone who never walked those streets or ate at that barbecue joint, but I've got to believe that music lovers and rock historians will have nothing but love for this kitschy, loving tribute to the little town that could.
Athens, I miss you.