March 13, 2019
SXSW Review: ‘Nothing Stays The Same’ Plays a Transcendent Tune with a Formulaic Approach
Nothing Stays The Same: The Story of The Saxon Pub functions as both a local interest story and something deserving of greater attention. The battle to keep Austin weird is very real as skyrocketing property values and a tech boom have priced out artists that have been responsible for making the city what it is. The story, thankfully, has a happy ending as one of the film’s executive producers, Greg Keller–a real estate agent who feels partly responsible for “selling Austin”–decides to preserve its funkiness.
Directed by Jeff Sandmann, Nothing Stays The Same is a minor documentary with excellent, occasionally transcendent performances by Austin luminaries like Bob Schneider, The Resentments, and Patrice Pike who graced the stage of the South Lamar Boulevard pub. Those of that have been making the trek to Austin for SXSW for the last ten years know have rapidly that neighborhood has changed. The Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar, right around the corner from The Saxon, used to anchor a funky strip mall with vintage shops. A few years ago luxury condos, restaurants, and boutiques were built around it. Through archival materials, the film makes the point that Austin has transformed from a sleepy college town to, thanks to a tech boom and a high quality of life, something that’s starting to look an awful lot like Toronto’s skyline of high-rise luxury glass towers.
Running just over an hour, Nothing Stays The Same doesn’t overstay its welcome, focusing largely on Saxon and briefly on other club owners who are struggling to keep the lights on and the beer flowing at reasonable prices. Much of the focus is on the vibe and artistry; likable at times it veers into almost branded content mode with regulars and bartenders providing an oral history of the club with intimate acoustics.
As the documentary geeks out about the acoustics of the place, I would have perhaps liked to have seen a little more context regarding the struggles of other club owners who are assembled for a quick round table by Austin Chronicle and SXSW founder Louis Black. The film also includes a brief interview with Austin mayor Steve Adler who speaks of preservation and progress. Director Sandmann seems to not probe too deeply in this interview.
As a study of time and place, Nothing Stays The Same shines largely due to its musical performances including Schneider’s Lonelyland band which plays every Monday. At its best the film captures the euphoric quality of several great music performances ranging from rock to the blues. Behind the mixer is a veteran who works 364 days a year that has mastered the space. As an ad, the film sure works as I’ll stop The Saxon for a beer after a screening at Alamo South. As a film, its focus is a bit narrow and its pacing occasionally drags, but just enough information is doled out to keep one’s attention, tackling issues faced by other gentrifying cities; New York’s CBGB, for instance, is now a John Varvatos store. Nothing Stays The Same is an important piece of Austin history with great performances but it feels as though director John Sandmann respectfully stuck to too narrow a mandate.
Nothing Stays The Same: The Story of The Saxon Pub premiered at SXSW.