Call me unreasonably idealistic or, maybe, way too focused on minutiae and how things are “done,” but I tend to steer clear of documentaries where the subjects have a say in the final edits of the film. It just doesn’t sit right with me and, in my opinion, means you’ve made an infomercial or “puff piece” rather than a true “documentary.”
For instance, I have zero interest in watching the supposedly amazing Joe Berlinger/Bruce Sinofsky Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster because it’s been well publicized the band had their fingers in every aspect of it all the way, including buying the rights to it so they could release it themselves. (Ironically, I just discovered that the film actually started as a Metallica infomercial! Go figure.) I’ll get back to this in a moment but in terms of how I like to “do things,” it’s important to call out personal biases a critic might have early in a review.
As an avid fan of music and passionate lover of Austin, Texas, I was excited to see Austin’s venerable dive bar and live music venue The Saxon Pub was getting the documentary treatment. Yet as director Jeff Sandmann’s doc Nothing Stays the Same: the Story of the Saxon Pub began to play, I started to get the feeling it seemed a little too…polished. Obviously, beautiful high-resolution video gives every project a glossy sheen but the use of drone shots as well as musicians, bar buddies and locals glowing philosophical about the Saxon wasn’t really pulling me in with any sense of drama or tension. And granted, if the Saxon Pub had been a shady place run by creeps, it wouldn’t have lasted as long as it has. Still, Nothing Stays the Same: the Story of the Saxon Pub was feeling like a puff piece or some kind of project bought and paid for by either the Austin Visitors Bureau or the Saxon Pub owners itself. Later, when real estate mogul Gary Keller (who executive produced the film) shows up onscreen, I was beyond suspicious about the intentions of this brisk, 70 minute doc. However, after the credits rolled and I had time to reflect, I kind of love the way Nothing Stays the Same: the Story of the Saxon Pub is a meta-version of it’s own story.
In the film we meet Saxon Pub owner Joe Ables. He’s friendly and congenial and seeing him throughout the film, it’s easy to see why he’s so well respected as well. It’s also not difficult to see how the Saxon Pub has stayed around so long as Ables is the kind of guy who has a “sure, why not?” attitude and as a result, he inadvertently turned the Saxon Pub into not only an Austin institution (no small feat in the “Live Music Capital of the World”) but also a treasured home for singer-songwriters who may not be big stars, but have gained deep respect from peers and music fans alike.
Burgeoning acts like Hayes Carll, Bob Schneider, Los Lonely Boys and Carolyn Wonderland cut their teeth there and the late, great singer-songwriter Stephen Bruton took up a Sunday night residency with a band he called “The Resentments” that featured a “you-never-know-who-might-come-join” status that saw the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Kris Kristofferson, Michael McDonald and countless others guesting. In short, the Saxon Pub slowly but surely became…legendary.
Yet as the Saxon Pub grew in popularity, so did the city of Austin and a massive building boom that is still going today began to encroach on all the cool, weird spots Austin was known for. Slick high-rises and chic eateries bumped architectural elbows with miles of fancy condominiums, all of these new buildings stepping all over the small, hip Austin scene. At one point in the film, Ables takes viewers outside and into his once large parking lot to show condos literally creeping up all around the Saxon. It soon becomes clear that the pub is in the crosshairs of development. This is where Sandmann’s film kicks the drama in to gear as well as kind of finds itself mirroring the events onscreen.
Yes, Nothing Stays the Same: the Story of the Saxon Pub is very much a love-letter to the Saxon Pub and, as such, often comes off like a Saxon Pub infomercial. Yet within this slick, loving doc lie a million little stories whose parts equal a greater whole. By example, in the film we meet Saxon stalwart Hector Ward who is confined to a wheelchair. He tells the tale of how after an accident he is told he likely will never have any bodily function to speak of and instead, beats the odds by not only becoming mobile once again, but he used his healing time to learn guitar. In another slight divergence, Saxon bartender Cari Hutson who has seen her dream of performing come to life and she often moves out from behind the bar to belt a tune. Even Able’s tale of giving up a lucrative career to take a chance on a rundown little pub is very engaging and full of the kind of risk versus reward moments that area always thrilling to behold.
Thus, all the little parts of Nothing Stays the Same: the Story of the Saxon Pub come together in the end to represent not only a nice memento of a club that’s given Austin credence and style as well as countless stories. Even if the film does come off as a little too polished, the sum of the parts within make for a worthwhile film.