Back in 1986, Athens, Georgia was the center of the independent music world, and the spirit of this small Southern town was captured for posterity by a video documentary called Athens, GA - Inside Out. It showed the world a music scene which functioned in an idyllic and artful setting, where bands like R.E.M., The B-52s, Dreams So Real, and the Flat Duo Jets shared the spotlight without a hint of conceit or competition. Recently re-released on DVD, the film takes us back to the glory days of Athens.
And, oh, those days are gone. As I myself am a veteran of the town's music scene, I can attest to the fact that post-1986 Athens was a much different place than is shown in the documentary. Fast forward merely five years later to my first year in the Classic City, 1991. By then, R.E.M. and The B-52s had gone beyond regional and national success into international superstardom, with multi-platinum records and hit singles. They were hardly part of the scene anymore, they were way too big. The 40 Watt had moved to bigger and better digs. Most of the other bands on the video were now defunct, including the disappointing demise and unsuccessful major label tenure of Dreams So Real. The Flat Duo Jets had moved out of town, and so had Athens' music crown. The royalty of alternative music now resided in Seattle, all the way across the country from this small Georgia town. While the rock critics waxed on about Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden, the Athens music scene lay mostly forgotten, and it had turned jaded and disillusioned after the snubbing of the music elite. Yet in the end, it's almost comforting to know the same happened to Seattle a few years later. Now, almost 20 years after the video was released, the Athens of the mid-80s seems so far away.
That's why it is so interesting to see this documentary in light of all that has happened since then. In the film, R.E.M. is young and fresh-faced, dressed up in their post-mod outfits and playing their acoustic instruments in a dusty old chapel. The other bands seem quaint and tame, even though back then they were considered "cutting edge" and definitely outside the mainstream of pop music. They sometimes appear to be trying hard to be weird, as if they have to live up to the Athenian legend. Even folk artist Howard Finster and beermeister Ort come across as cariacatures of themselves---almost as if they are playing their respective parts in a movie. In a way, I guess they are. This was the underground scene of Athens, with musicians and artists all dressed up and coming out like little alternative debutantes. Southern Gothic to be consumed by the masses in all its glory, selling the myth and legend of independent music's best of all possible worlds.
Yet, when it comes down to it, whether or not 1986 Athens was the ideal place for a band to exist is really beside the point. This film captures a simple moment in time when bands didn't have to be superstars to capture the attention of the music world, with a poignant reminder that moments like that don't last very long.