All documentaries—no matter how raw, no matter how unembellished, no matter how devoted to the Ultimate Truth—have the potential to mislead. And so it goes, very briefly, for Todd P Goes to Austin, in a quick scene that alleges, falsely, that titular hero Todd Patrick, DIY rock-show king of Brooklyn and beyond, is incapable of changing a tire.
This impression is inaccurate. I can confirm this because Todd himself yelled words to this effect during a recent screening.
Hosted by Death + Taxes in the basement of Lower East Side club the Delancey, the film was projected onto a giant sheet, while most of the crowd eschewed the tantalizing opportunity to sit on the club’s floor and instead remained standing up, at relatively rapt attention, throughout the flick’s hour-plus run time. Todd was the evening’s DJ, you see, spinning both the usual (the Vivian Girls, “Repeater”) and unusual (Fleetwood Mac, “Sea Cruise”) suspects prior to and immediately after the main event. Modest and unassuming to the end, he kept mostly quiet during the movie itself, with the exception of the part where his van breaks down in Texas, mere hours from completing the arduous 1,700-odd-mile Brooklyn-to-Austin trek. He is shown on the side of the road, regarding the busted tire, struggling with an unwieldy jack and finally, reluctantly, deferring to a higher power (AAA).
As the scene ends, a mock-offended voice is heard above the Delancey din: “The jack fuckin’ broke. [Pause.] I can change a tire.”
I believe Todd P, in this and all other regards. Since 2001, he has built an unassailable rep as a tireless promoter-booster for the outer-borough underground, throwing raucous yet painstakingly organized shows at venues with romantic names like Silent Barn, Market Hotel, Monster Island, Shea Stadium. Though he’s far from the only player at those spots or in this scene, he has become synonymous with the infectious streak of defiant exuberance that now defines the city’s musical DNA: Say “Todd P show,” and even a one-time patron will know exactly what you mean—a very specific alchemy of homemade urban grit and unironic joy.
A documentary or other such deification was inevitable, though Austin, directed by longtime Todd P–show patron Jay Buim, goes easy on the messianic stuff. It’s a road movie, basically, charting the lonely-highway misadventures and fretful catnaps of the promoter’s endless trip down to Texas for the 2008 edition of South by Southwest, the overstuffed, monolithic, oft-soulless bacchanal of indie-music gladhandery, with thousands of bands playing thousands of shows over a long March weekend. A former Austinite and no great fan of modern-day, corporate-saturated SXSW, Todd returns every year to throw his own unofficial parties, free of marketing nihilism, etc. Interspersed throughout are anarchic, full-song live performances by longtime cohorts from NYC and elsewhere: Dan Deacon, Matt and Kim, the Death Set, Team Robespierre, Mika Miko, and so forth.
The flick’s third and most revelatory recurring element, though, consists of quasi-sermons from Todd himself, small treatises on the power of music, the allure of DIY culture, and the evils of the bottom-line-driven music industry, all very sincerely and passionately delivered, oftentimes taking on an almost philosophical bent: “Why should there be any rules to creating a beautiful expression of what you feel?”
He’s preaching, essentially, but only because his peers saw fit to ordain him. “Going to Todd’s shows reminded me of why I started liking music in the first place,” Buim says, lounging with Todd on a stoop around the corner from the Delancey after the screening. “I don’t mean to get sentimental. When I was growing up in New Jersey, going to punk shows, going to people’s basements, firehouses, VFW halls—just these raw, super-fun, super-energetic shows where everyone was just down to have a good time. Then I started going to shows at more, like, traditional venues, and it just really bored me, sitting there, everybody—it’s just contagious to do [folds arms, looks terminally unimpressed] this.”
By then, he’d moved to Brooklyn: “And I started going to Todd’s shows, and I remembered how much fun shows could be, how you could go to different shows every night and have your mind blown different ways by all the great stuff you’re getting exposed to that you didn’t know about. I thought that something really exciting was happening in our neighborhood at the time, and I just wanted to capture it. I wanted to tell that story.”
Rather than some sort of Yay Brooklyn overview, Buim opted to focus on the Austin trek as a “small story that told a much bigger story.” Which doesn’t give the resulting movie a plot, really: just close-ups of overworked windshield wipers and uneasily sleeping passengers amid on-the-road vignettes and harmless bouts of rest-stop cuteness (Kim: “I may shit in a bag tonight”). But you do get to see Todd in his various natural environments, working awfully hard despite his on-screen insistence that “It’s actually easier than it looks.” Early on, we get a glimpse at what’s involved in cleaning and maintaining a fairly large, unwieldy venue like Bushwick’s Market Hotel, particularly with various external distractions. (Actual quote: “There’s a motherfucker at the door with an ax.”) And later, when the various hobbled touring vans finally make it to Austin, triumphant footage of Matt and Kim slaying an adoring crowd at a rare “official” Todd P SXSW party is intercut with Todd working hard elsewhere, seemingly insulated from the joy he was instrumental in creating.
“I have a lot of footage of you going to hardware stores, buying lights, setting up floors,” Buim tells Todd out on the stoop. “It doesn’t really make the most exciting movie.”
“What it’s like to put on the shows? The details, all the mundane bullshit, is not very cinematic,” Todd agrees. But the film “definitely, hopefully shows that it’s a lot of fun. I’m sure it’s pretty obvious to anyone watching that movie that, through a lot of it, I’m kind of stressed out and anxious. You see that, but you also see me have a good time, and you see all the staff that comes down with me have a good time—you see it being a good time. So, hopefully, that’s inspirational to anybody who wants to do something. Whether it accurately captures the vibe I get or the experience I have putting on a show? Of course not. But I don’t know. Could you film that? It’s pretty boring to watch. It’s mostly me working. And me telling other people how to work.”
Buim is now busy organizing other screenings, pitching the flick to festivals, and hoping for a DVD release; Todd, of course, is still at it, plowing through the monotony to get to the ecstasy. “I think the strongest thing I’ve taken away from being part of the scene is that you can’t worry about failing,” he says. “You can’t come up with excuses not to do things—you just need to work really hard and do what you feel you need to do. And from that, you can achieve what you want. I don’t know if that sounds too ‘Boys & Girls Club of America.’ “