A pleasantly discursive guide to the longest-running music program in TV history, “A Song for You: The Austin City Limits Story” is the latest in a thriving subgenre of documentaries dedicated to the proposition that Austin is the live music capital of the world, if not the entire galaxy. Director Keith Maitland’s obvious labor of love could be classified as the cinematic equivalent of an authorized biography — after all, it’s co-produced by KLRU-TV, the public television station that produces “Austin City Limits,” and Terry Lickona, that show’s longtime producer, is one of this doc’s executive producers. But the movie generates too much good will to smack of crass self-promotion, which should extend its shelf life as home-video product, streaming fare and audience magnet during PBS fund-raising weeks.
Drawing on the collective memories of performers and behind-the-scenes personnel who have been associated with “Austin City Limits” during its 40-plus-year run, Maitland fashions an entertaining oral history. But wait, there’s more: The animated and mostly celebratory testimonies are generously illustrated with clips of memorable performances by acts ranging from long-established country stars (including Willie Nelson, who appeared in the 1974 pilot episode) and gone-but-not-forgotten legends (Ray Charles, Townes Van Zandt) to contemporary rockers (Radiohead) and relative newcomers (Alabama Shakes, Thao & the Get Down Stay Down).
Maitland (whose Austin-centric “Tower” also debuted at SXSW this year) traces the show’s history back to its conception in 1974, a time in Austin when hippies and country-music devotees were beginning to forge common bonds and, as one interviewee nostalgically notes, “Rent was $150 a month, and pot was $10 an ounce.” The nationally syndicated “Austin City Limits,” long a staple of PBS stations, began life in Studio 6A on the U. of Texas campus, produced by KLRU (then KLRN) primarily as a showcase for Texas musical acts.
Over the years, producer Terry Lickona and his faithful staffers (many of whom have been with “Austin City Limits” for decades) have expanded the program’s scope to include national and international acts of all kinds, and the program itself has moved to a state-of-the-art production facility in downtown Austin. Even so, the original format has remained unchanged: a solid hour of musical performances in each episode, in marked contrast to the 3- or 4-minute segments squeezed into “Saturday Night Live” and late-night talk shows. There is, quite simply, nothing else like “Austin City Limits” on American broadcast television right now. And there hasn’t been for far too long, recently surpassing “Top of the Pops’” record as the longest-running concert series.
Unfortunately, no doubt due to the sheer number of artists worthy of inclusion, the performance clips in “A Song for You” are fleeting samples that will leave some fans hungry for more. (Just as Bonnie Raitt starts to really tear into “You’re Gonna Get What’s Coming,” Maitland moves on to something else.) And be forewarned: If you’re looking for scandalous revelations and/or backstage gossip, well, you had best look elsewhere. With few exceptions — such as a sequence that focuses on a drug-fueled performance by the late Stevie Ray Vaughan — there is little here other than scads of happy memories and samplings of great music. But that’s more than enough.