Directed by Keith Maitland, “A Song For You: The Austin City Limits Story” held its world premiere at The Paramount Theatre in Austin, Texas during SXSW on Mar. 17, 2016. The SXSW Music, Film and Interactive Conferences and Festivals is celebrating its 30th year. And this year Keith Maitland and his teammates debuted two films for the first time at SXSW 2016. “A Song For You: The Austin City Limits Story” is a vibrant, intimate and engaging documentary covering 40 years and four decades of live music filmed for the beloved television show Austin City Limits (ACL). It’s a playful and raw story—an immaculate collection of great artists and their bands that took the stage at Austin City Limits. Director Keith Maitland shares the unique story of how ACL began with ‘janky’ sound equipment and soon morphed into the longest running music show in television history.
Artists that appear within the documentary include the following: Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Ray Vaughan, Beck, Johnny Cash, Bonnie Raitt, Ray Charles, Emmylou Harris, Buddy Guy, Jeff Bridges, Matthew McConaughey, Lyle Lovett, Sheryl Crow, Dolly Parton, Radiohead, B.B. King, Lighting Hopkins, The Avett Brothers, Talking Heads, Garth Brooks, Thao Nguyen and more. “Long-time producer of Austin City Limits, Terry Lickona, also transcends the TV show and gives audiences a front-row seat and backstage pass to the greatest performances of the longest running music show in television history.”
One prime reason “A Song For You” is described as the ‘ultimate backstage pass’ to Austin City Limits is because it entails endless video clippings from numerous performances filmed live at ACL alongside annotations of those who were there first-hand to experience the performances. The audience is granted the inside track regarding many ACL shows, off-stage and-onstage. Watching the artists and the production team work their magic. Feeling as if we were there, too. Hearing about the highs-and-lows of the non-stop adventure—’the flood of memories’—it’s an adrenaline rush to the heart and soul. Listening to the music, hearing the interviews and seeing it all unfold and come to life at once makes the documentary unforgettable.
Director Keith Maitland did an immaculate job of intertwining 40 years of history into 96 minutes. “A Song For You” opens with Dale Watson solely because he was the featured artist on the final episode filmed for Season 39 by Austin City Limits. Once Maitland sets the scene in present day, the Director takes us all the way back to the beginning when Willie Nelson played for ACL in 1974 and tells the story in a retrospective way. Obviously, music is the core of Austin City Limits: their universal love of music and their never-ending desire to showcase musical masters and the up-and-coming talent. The title of the film is also befitting because without the audience, Austin City Limits wouldn’t have thrived. The show needs the audience as much as we need the show. You won’t want this film to end it’s that exciting, but when it does. As the credits come to a close, there is a video of Ray Charles singing “Deep In The Heart of Texas”. Which is where it all began, deep in the hearts of Texans. Or at least those living in Texans even if born elsewhere… Many of the artists in the film are still living, others have died and passed on. But the story of Austin City Limits will live on forever.
Fortunately, this week the Director Keith Maitland met with Austin Examiner, Nicolette Mallow, at The Driskill Hotel to talk about “A Song For You: The Austin City Limits Story” and how this delightful documentary came to fruition. Maitland also touched briefly on his other film, “Tower” that screened at the SXSW 2016 festival, too. [“Tower” is about the sniper in August of 1966 who rode the elevator to the top and held people hostage from The University of Texas Tower for 96 minutes, and at the end of his tyranny he’d taken 16 lives and wounded over three dozen.]
Nicolette Mallow: What compelled you to make a film about Austin City Limits? Do you simply love the show and what it stands for? Or do you have a strong affiliation with the city of Austin, too? I noticed both of your films pertained to Austin, Texas.
Keith Maitland: I attended The University of Texas at Austin from 1994 to 1998. Then I lived in NYC for ten years. About ten years ago, I moved back to Austin. And yes, live music is something I’ve always loved … In the 1990’s, I saw a few ACL tapings. I even sneaked backstage a few times. Once I snuck onto Willie Nelson’s tour bus in 1998. I had a knack for sneaking backstage. And that’s really what I wanted this documentary to capture: the energy and excitement of a wide-eyed fan… How this project came about is that I used to work at KLRU. And then a few years ago, a PBS Executive in DC called me about Austin City Limits and their 40th anniversary.
NM: How were you able to pick and choose a specific list of videos from an endless supply of ACL performances?
KM: That was no easy task and there was simply no way to honor all of the artistic talent that has premiered on the show. Austin City Limits has showcased around 800 performers and their bands. That’s a rough estimate and not an exact number, but my point is that it was impossible to include everyone in 96 minutes. I asked the production crew for a list of their favorites, and that was hard for them as well. So rather than pick out favorites, together, we oriented the set list around pivotal moments of the show.
NM: I noticed the documentary focused a great deal on Beck, Willie Nelson, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. All very big artists that are loved by Austin and around the globe… Personally I loved the footage in your film of Beck’s performance at ACL. And I actually went to middle school and high school with Willie’s nephew, Trevor. Any reason you chose those three to focus on?
KM: Beck is one of my absolute favorite artists and his presence in the film portrays the musical energy of present day. It was so cool to book an interview with him and quite rare for us to get the chance. Beck is very exclusive about interviews. I think it had been about ten years since Beck had consented to an on-camera documentary interview. So that was a huge honor and I know the only reason we were able to book it is because of Beck’s love for Austin City Limits… In regards to the other two artists. There are two statues of musicians in downtown Austin: Willie Nelson and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Their names were paramount to the story because they have each cast a shadow over the legacy of this town… Plus, Willie Nelson is the first artist to perform for the show and he’s from Austin. Also, the producers of ACL absolutely adore those two. And I can tell they had a very personal friendship with Stevie Ray Vaughan and that the absence of his presence still stings the ACL family.
NM: Did you enjoy interviewing the production crew, and specifically (the producer) Terry Lickona, from the ACL crew?
KM: Yes. I did. One of my favorite parts of the film is at the end when we are asking all the employees at ACL about what lead them to their job and what their role in the company is… Terry Lickona is just a great person in addition to being a fantastic producer. He is also a live music devourer. And he is always looking to the future and ‘what’s next’ which keeps the show fresh and exciting. He is a people’s people and is constantly out there absorbing the latest news pertaining to music. Terry’s loyalty to the show— and the loyalty of the entire ACL crew—it’s astounding. They’re an amazing team. And come on, it’s a pretty sweet gig to work.
NM: My last question is about your other film “Tower”. The other day I saw “A Song For You” at the Violet Crown and I adore it. But I’ve yet to see this one. My question is, many people have made movies or written stories about the 1966 sniper that murdered people from the UT Tower on the UT campus. What defines your story from all the rest and makes it so unique?
KM: Yes a lot of people have covered this story. What makes my take on it unique is that I don’t focus on the sniper. I focus on the witnesses, the heroes and the survivors of the story. The sniper is obviously mentioned and he’s part of the story. But he’s almost like the shark in the movie “Jaws” and how we don’t really see him until the end. We just hear the music and know what’s coming. “Tower” is a story of humanity at its best and worst. We get to see the people who put their lives at risk to save another. We also get to hear accounts from those who were frozen in fear, unable to help, and the shame they felt for being paralyzed with fear. But it’s very touching to hear the stories. A lot of people risked their lives to come to the rescue of those bloodied, bleeding and wounded… There is a little bit of us all in these characters and I wanted people to be able to relate to the story. Not the sniper.
For more information regarding “A Song For You: The Austin City Limits Story” please visit the official website at www.asongforyoufilm.com. To learn more about Austin City Limits (ACL) and to search upcoming performances: please check out their web page at www.acl-live.com.
Note: This article was originally published on in March 2016.