SXSW Film Review: ‘Bluebird’
As affectionate as a love letter but as substantial as an infomercial, Brian Loschiavo’s “Bluebird” may be of most interest to casual and/or newly converted country music fans who have occasionally wondered about the songwriters behind the songs. There’s a better than even-money chance that anyone who’s a loyal and longtime aficionado of the musical genre already has at least a nodding acquaintance with the history and significance of The Bluebird Café, the intimate Nashville venue often cited as a launching pad for both platinum-selling superstars and behind-the-scenes tunesmiths. On the other hand, even many of those individuals could be entertained by what amounts to a backstage tour.
Director-editor Loschiavo capably balances the household names (Faith Hill, Garth Brooks, Kacey Musgraves) and unsung heroes (open-mic hopefuls, songwriters little known outside the Nashville music community) in the cavalcade of interviewees who, with degrees of enthusiasm ranging from nostalgic to reverential, tell the story of an improbable landmark in an unlikely setting.
Located in the middle of an unprepossessing strip-mall shopping center in the Green Hills area of Nashville, The Bluebird Café is a 90-seat restaurant and music club that founder Amy Kurland opened in 1982 as a conventional eatery featuring live performances, but gradually transformed into a place where up-and-coming songwriters could perform their compositions during open-mic nights — and other artists (including more established songwriters, open-mic alumni, and chart-topping notables) could sing and play their own tunes and material by other artists.
“It’s kind of a combination of your living room and a church sanctuary,” says award-winning singer-songwriter Sam Hunt, just one of the interviewees who vividly describe how close a performer is to the small but attentive audience during each stage-in-the-round set at the café. (Full disclosure: I’ve been there a couple times — and, if anything, it’s actually a less spacious place than it appears here.)
The immediate feedback can be daunting — one artist claims she can never sing certain tunes without noticing the tears forming in the eyes of listeners — and instructive. Jason Isbell remembers being so nervous during the first public performance of “Streetlights” at the Bluebird that he fumbled his own lyrics. But after receiving compliments specifically for what only he knew was a screw-up, he opted to change the words he wrote to the words he sang.
“Bluebird” abounds with tales of singer-songwriters who got their first big break while performing at the café on just the right night, when record company heavyweights were in the audience. Taylor Swift is infectiously exuberant during an unannounced, audience-astonishing return visit as she recalls being seen, and signed, by Scott Borchetta for his then-new Big Machine label when she was just 14 years old.
As counterpoint, however, the documentary does allow for some slightly discouraging words to be heard. Eric Paslay, writer or co-writer of such county hits as “Barefoot Blue Jean Night” and “Even if It Breaks Your Heart,” pointedly cautions that “some of the greatest songs that have ever been written” will never be heard after their one-time-only performance at the Bluebird. Even the café’s staffers in charge of culling the list of songwriters jockeying for a shot at overnight stardom — or at least a spot on the open-mic lineup — admit: “You’ve got to be careful to be just encouraging enough.”
Cinematically speaking, “Bluebird” isn’t the eponymous venue’s first rodeo. The Bluebird Café figured prominently as a location in “The Thing Called Love,” Peter Bogdanovich’s underrated 1993 dramedy featuring River Phoenix, Samantha Mathis, Dermot Mulroney and Sandra Bullock as country-music hopefuls. Trisha Yearwood (another “Bluebird” interviewee here) fleetingly appears as herself in that earlier film, in a scene that suggests the best way for a songwriter to get a break in Nashville is to break into a Nashville star’s car.
But the café — or, to be more precise, a reasonable facsimile thereof — received a lot more screen time in “Nashville,” the 2012-18 primetime drama about dreamers and schemers in Music City. Throughout the show’s run on ABC and CMT, the TV series (which continues to attract viewers through streaming reruns) frequently positioned its characters inside a meticulously detailed lookalike set on a Nashville soundstage that persuasively doubled for the real Bluebird. In the documentary, singer-songwriter Steve Earle marvels: “It’s frightening how accurate it is.” Adds series star Charles Esten: “This isn’t just a set or location. This is a cast member of ‘Nashville.’”
A sizable portion of “Bluebird” focuses on what might best be described as The “Nashville” Effect. Esten, Connie Britton and other veterans of the series speak warmly and gratefully about ways the TV show gained cred from country music fans by spending so much time at the faux Bluebird. (So much cred, in fact, that although it’s not emphasized here, Esten, Clare Bowen and a few other singer-actors in the cast have had multiple opportunities to prove their musical bona fides in international concert tours, and on the Grand Ole Opry stage.) In turn, the series elevated the real venue’s profile as a tourist attraction, fortuitously leading to a massive spike in admissions at a time when audience attendance had been dwindling.
Bluebird Café chief operating officer and general manager Erika Wollam Nichols bluntly admits: “It allowed us to keep our doors open.” Even now, she adds, “a third of our revenue comes from merchandise” purchased by people drawn to the café by the TV show — and, of course, by the place’s iconic status. Along with the branded posters, coffee mugs and T-shirts, “Bluebird” DVDs and Blu-Rays doubtless will be on sale at the establishment’s souvenir counter for years to come.