Two vastly different performers are at the center of documentaries at SXSW this year, although they share a common ground in the need to keep going at all costs.
"Conan O'Brien Can't Stop" follows the fallen "Tonight Show" host during his highly publicized "Legally Prohibited on From Being Funny on Television Tour," which found him traveling to 44 cities last year before launching his new show on TBS. Seemingly infused with insatiable energy, O'Brien appears in candid footage captured by longtime friend Rodman Flender in a remarkable moment of professional transition.
In Jay Duplass's much quieter musical portrait "Kevin," Austin musician Kevin Gant is seen undergoing a similar transition, from his stable role as spiritual solo artist in the nineties to frustrated UPS employee before finally winding his way back to the microphone. In his own fashion, Gant can't stop either.
The premieres of both movies included distinct live ingredients, since the subjects attended the screenings, as if they stepped off the screen to extend the experience into the present. At the lively "Conan" premiere in the 1600-seat Paramount theater, O'Brien participated in a naturally funny Q&A session, in which he discussed the experience of allowing Flender to capture him on the road. (Watch a clip of O'Brien answering one audience question here.)
"Rodman said, 'I don't want a slick Conan O'Brien product," the host explained. "I was OK with that. I hope this move can be useful to people who see it." In fact, the fundamental appeal of "Conan O'Brien Can't Stop" involves its nifty expansion of O'Brien's onscreen persona. Flender, who shot and edited the material, has no tricky filmmaking tricks to offer, but O'Briein has plenty to say.
Notwithstanding questions in the media about the revelation of a "Mean Conan" in the footage, hearing O'Brien cut loose, quickly assemble his improvisatory sketches and drop a few four-letter words ("This is what I call my 'fuck it' period," he says at one point) allows for the appearance of a far more fleshed out persona than any network television channel could possibly air. Compiled out of 149 minutes of footage, the 88-minute feature nicely displays the rush of the tour experience and its purpose for O'Brien as extreme catharsis. "It's an elation coming out of utter despair," he says. Although occasionally pissy about his inability to slow down and collect himself (a memorable bit finds him abruptly drafted to introduce acts at Bonnaroo, right when he wants to relax), O'Brien demonstrates a superhuman ability to keep his funny bone in check, even after the crowds go home.
Although "Kevin" has no big laughs, it contains the same spirit of continuation. Duplass, now firmly entrenched in Hollywood with sibling director-actor Mark, narrates the deeply personal 50-minute project, recalling how he became a fan of Gant while attending film school in Austin in the early 1990's. In 2009, Duplass contacted Gant to figure out why he had dropped off the map, and discovered an alienated man fallen on hard times. "Something inside me switched off," Gant says, recounting how a misguided trip to L.A. ended with his return to Austin in 1995 in bad spirits.
A simple, focused portrait, the movie efficiently outlines Gant's role in Austin's music culture, particularly the iconic showcasing of local artists at the now-defunct Chicago House, where Gant often played. During the Q&A, which was preceded by two acoustic songs performed by the ebullient Gant, Duplass explained how his affinity for Gant's talent stuck with him over the years. "We have a great career," Duplass said, referring to the studio movies he and Mark now make, "but I just wanted to reconnect with the source of my inspiration."
Gant, who saw the finished project for the first time with the audience, choked back tears. "There's no way to describe what it means to me," he said. "It's amazing to see that history." O'Brien can probably relate.
HOW WILL THEY PLAY? Under an hour, "Kevin" seems unlikely to find its way to theaters, but should have an interesting life on the festival circuit, as Gant hopes to hit the road and promote it with the director. He will also move back to Austin from Los Angeles in April to do an artist's residency at Purple Bee studios, a return to the public eye that could bring additional focus on the movie when it hits DVD. "Conan," meanwhile, may receive its best exposure on television, although a small theatrical release could lead to a strong turnout, due to the obvious popularity of the documentary's subject.
"Conan O'Brien Can't Stop": B+