”Welcome to the festival where you can listen to a song while watching a movie while returning an email,” director Zal Batmanglij told the Austin audience as his eco-thriller The East, starring Alexander Skarsgård and Ellen Page, closed out the film portion of the SXSW festival on March 16. Batmanglij’s brother Rostam’s band, Vampire Weekend, played later that night in a crowded midnight time slot that included Justin Timberlake, Prince, and the Smashing Pumpkins. The city was a circus of creative energy and corporate interests.
And so wrapped a potent nine-day (March 8 to 17) celebration of art, communication, and the pursuit of publicity in the music, film, and interactive worlds. Amid the drone of buzz, the thrill of new talent, and the annual adoration of the Texas capital — ”So far, Austin is like a beautiful woman, and I just want to take advantage of you,” Jim Carrey said at the March 8 premiere of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone — there was groaning over SXSW’s massive growth. (2,278 bands! 30,621 interactive participants! 73,338 moviegoers!) ”In 1991 people were saying, ‘Oh, it’s too big, it’s over,’ so we tend to take those criticisms with a grain of salt,” says SXSW founder and managing director Roland Swenson. ”The goal remains the same — which is to bring creative people from around the world to Austin to meet each other and share ideas.” Here we share ours, the top takeaways from this year’s fest.
Superstars Stole the Show
It was certainly the starriest SXSW in recent memory. Prince and his 22-person band played for almost three blissful hours in a tiny club during a March 17 ”secret show” for Samsung Galaxy. And Timberlake officially capped the festival by putting on a faux-tux T-shirt and belting out ”Cry Me a River” during his Myspace-sponsored set. Meanwhile, some smaller acts seethed. As Zachary Cole Smith, lead singer of the indie-rock band DIIV, put it on Tumblr: ”[It’s] really just a glorified corporate networking party.”
Kendrick Lamar moved the masses
The sunbaked crowd at the March 15 Spin outdoor party at Stubb’s BBQ was weary and a bit jaded, but Kendrick Lamar — arguably rap’s hottest name right now — was able to make things pop anyway. Even the event’s overworked employees could be seen rapping along.
Dave Grohl gave a killer keynote
When Bruce Springsteen learned that Dave Grohl was this year’s keynote speaker, Springsteen laughed ”as if to say, Good f—ing luck,” the Foo Fighters frontman admitted. But his March 14 speech was great, filled with heartfelt stories about his first guitar (”It sounded like that ‘goats yelling like humans’ YouTube clip”), losing Kurt Cobain (”I turned off the radio…. It just hurt too much”), and loving punk rock (”Broken glass and piss and f—in’ puke? I was in heaven!”). Your move, Bruce F—in’ Springsteen.
Usher went under the Radar
While many ”secret” shows weren’t exactly that, Usher’s March 15 appearance with ’90s alt-rock stalwarts the Afghan Whigs did manage to catch many Fader Fort attendees by surprise. After performing singles like ”OMG” and ”Climax” with the group, the R&B star treated fans to an a cappella encore mini-set, complete with beatboxing.
Bands off the beaten track
Up-and-comers Parquet Courts and Merchandise set up shop on a local pedestrian bridge for a free 2 a.m. show March 15, rocking out for the badgeless-but-party-ready crowd. Other underground highlights included Autre Ne Veut hypnotizing fans in the club space that formerly housed Austin institution Emo’s, rising rapper Angel Haze playing a parking lot, and British rockers Palma Violets (most of whom are underage) making some noise at a bike shop on their first-ever trip to Texas.
A dance-music duo broke out
The Swedish synth-pop duo Icona Pop knew how to get the young crowd at their March 13 Vice showcase to go mad. The secret? Roof-shaking dubstep music, apparently, which the ”I Love It” twosome relied on throughout their set. Further proof that dance is threatening rock, even at (gasp!) SXSW.
Short Term 12 had plenty to cheer about
Destin Daniel Cretton’s triumphant portrait of a woman (played by breakout Brie Larson) who works in a foster-care facility won the movie side’s Grand Jury and Audience Awards. ”Backstage I was like, ‘This is just like Bring It On!… It doesn’t matter [who wins],”’ said Larson. ”And someone said, ‘But you won!’ This is better than Bring It On!”
Tech worth talking about
There was MakerBot’s 3-D scanner, the new Google Glass eyewear, and Jawbone Up, a bracelet that tracks your steps and your sleep. Even after the fest ended, everyone was yapping about the March 8 interactive session on Reddit, which devolved into a bitter dispute between fans of the popular online community and the panelists, who slammed the site for bigotry and sexism within its forums.
Documentaries made beautiful music
From the world premieres of two Green Day docs (the band also made its SXSW debut March 15) to the stirring reminder of former Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna’s radical awesomeness in The Punk Singer, there was as much music to enjoy in a darkened theater as up on stage. And Downloaded, the film about the rise and fall of Napster from Bill & Ted star Alex Winter, captured the attention of SXSW’s three interwoven industries.