If Chainsaws, Slackers and Spy Kids sounds like a titillating title for a book, it's only because the book itself deals with some of the most provocative indie films in recent cinematic history - many of them made by Texas-born filmmakers.
The book is the work of Alison Macor, former film critic for both the Austin Chronicle and Austin American-Statesman. It looks at the 30-plus-year history of filmmaking in Austin and Texas, starting in 1974 with one of the most popular independent horror films in the history of cinema, Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and ending with Austin darlings like Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez.
Macor will speak about the history of independent filmmaking in Texas at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Tuesday at 6:30 p.m., and that got Rocks Off thinking. Some of our favorite Texas directors seem to have an innate way with music in their films. From Salma Hayak's snake-dance to Wes Anderson's vintage indie soundtracks, music and movies are inherently linked in Texas.
So we asked Macor for her take. Her commentary and ours follow some of our favorite examples below.
Hollywood Shuffle: I was just wondering what your thoughts were on films that come from Texas and their use of music. It seems like there is an uncanny knack for Texas filmmakers to seamlessly weave music into their work so that it almost becomes like another character. I'm thinking specifically about Wes Anderson and Richard Linklater but there are other examples.
Alison Macor: I know for most of the filmmakers I wrote about in my book (Eagle Pennell, Richard Linklater, and Mike Judge, for instance), music is a very important element of their storytelling. It probably has as much to do with the way they create and work as it does with the fact that, at least in Austin, the film and music scenes can have a lot of overlap and intermingling.
In the 1970s, for instance, as Austin music was attracting national attention (Willie Nelson, Armadillo World Headquarters, etc.), the Austin film scene was earning notice for movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
HS: The film that started it all. Texas Chainsaw Massacre also started some of the most well-known tropes in slasher cinema, from the faceless antagonist to the documentary-style filming. But did you know there is also a whole group of people fascinated by the movie's score and the music made by filmmaker Tobe Hooper. This Web site has some excellent information on the unknown bands whose music was used in the flick.
AM: Austin was small enough then (just under 300,00 people in the mid 1970s) that often the same people belonged to each "community," and their was an easy movement between the two groups. Plus, in general, I think creative people tend to be interested in multiple art forms, so filmmakers often are big music fans, and vice versa. Then there's the Texas pride aspect, in the sense that most Texans I've met tend to celebrate Texas culture in all forms.
HS: We're pretty sure Salma Hayek would have made it in Hollywood anyway, but it was her work in Rodriguez' Desperado, and ultimately this film, that helped her get her big break. Umm, you might want to close your office door for this one.
HS: We'll admit it. We're fans of Houston's favorite filmmaking son and members of the Margot Tenenbaum Appreciation Society. And here is a perfect example of the leitmotif, where a song entirely espouses a character.
AM: To many of these filmmakers the music is another character. It's important to how they see and hear their story to have the music be as carefully chosen as a particular take of a scene within the film, a character's wardrobe, even a lighting setup.
HS: Everyone's had that moment where a song from the past sneaks up on you and lightens your day. In a movie sick with nostalgia, this scene has doubled back on itself and is now a symbol of the 1990s as much as the song is a symbol of the '80s.
AM: Eagle Pennell, who made films in Austin and Houston roughly between the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, was very specific when he wrote to his brother, composer Chuck Pennell, about the kind of music he wanted Chuck to compose for his first feature, The Whole Shootin' Match. Pennell understood that the music could make or break the mood of each scene.
HS: Partially Austin and taking place in the fictional town of Bodeen (a.k.a. Brenham), Whip It boasts a soundtrack of nearly 60 songs, from Dolly Parton to Young MC to The Breeders.
HS: David Byrne's ode to a fake Texas town has so much that Hollywood Shuffle loves. Spalding Gray (rest his soul), odd characters, desolate landscapes and excellent music.
HS: Okay, so we know it's kinda cloudy, and there no actual music in this scene, but this particular part of Slacker has always, to quote a phrase, blown our gourd. The thing about Richard Linklater is that he's always been able to capture a particular culture or moment in time on film. Don't we all still know people like this in Austin?
AM: Richard Linklater used music by local bands in Slacker - Poi Dog Pondering, Texas Instruments - because he considered it another way to create the vibe of the movie. In Dazed and Confused, Linklater famously insisted on using only music that was released at the time that the movie was set, last day of school, 1976.
He made mixtapes for all of the actors to listen to prior to coming to shoot in Austin, and even the crew listened to the same music as they were painting the sets. On The Newton Boys, Linklater also insisted on period Texas music - the story was about a group of Texas brothers who robbed banks - and really went to bat for some local musicians to be hired by the studio.
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HS: It was hard to pick which scene best represented this film - filmed in part in Austin - about office drones who've had a bit too much of the daily grind. But we passed up Michael Bolton's awkward Monday morning rap (and we're not talking about "that no-talent assclown") for this oh-so-honest scene where the guys take out their frustrations on the malfunctioning printer/fax.
AM: Mike Judge is a musician - he toured with Anson Funderburgh and Doyle Bramhall in the 1980s - so he also understands how music can round out a scene and give you more insight into the characters. In Office Space, for instance, he was adamant that there be gangsta rap.
But 20th Century Fox kept trying to discourage him from using rap on the soundtrack, probably because they wanted to make sure the movie appealed to the widest audience possible. Judge stood his ground, and preview audiences loved the music.