On tour at home

Local documentary Lift Me Up chronicles Austin musicians’ struggles during the pandemic

Local film Lift Me Up chronicles Austin musicians’ pandemic struggles

The world is operating in a new stage of pandemic art. Having eclipsed a year of lockdown, delays, and virtual collaboration, creators are already looking back to the beginning and reflecting.

On Wednesday, June 2, Project ATX6 released the trailer for Lift Me Up, the sixth season of the annual live-music documentary with a twist. Like many shows that are finally resurfacing, it was filmed in the very early stages of the pandemic. The subjects, six Austin musicians on an international tour, spend screen time in a charming and relatable melange of naiveté and shrugging necessity to carry on. The film premieres on Friday, June 18 at 8 pm on local PBS affiliate KLRU.

Project ATX6 selects a new group of musicians each year to act as cultural ambassadors and gain exposure at international festivals. The documentary follows them on tour and brings their experiences home for Austin audiences to live through, at least vicariously. The tour started in November 2019 at Indie Week in Toronto, Canada, before anyone knew what challenges live musicians would face the following year, especially on the road.

Producer and director Chris Brecht followed the crew to Toronto and Chiang Mai, Thailand, for the Jai Thep Festival. The trailer focuses on the group’s experience in Thailand, the country with the first COVID-19 case outside of China.

“I think we knew coronavirus was a thing,” says Mike St.Clair of Pocket Sounds in the trailer, “but, like, it hadn’t been dissected.”

Before the musicians made it to Brighton, England, for The Great Escape music festival, the pandemic had taken hold and canceled their plans.

“I don’t really compare it to the other seasons,” says Jonathan Horstmann of V3CO and Urban Heat. “It more feels like we’ve got something in common with everyone else because we aren’t isolated in our plans being canceled.”

When the cast returned home to Austin, explains Horstmann, there was still hope for South By Southwest. But those opportunities dissipated. SXSW was canceled, stunning musicians who heavily relied on the income, and lovers of the arts. At the time, no coronavirus cases had been found in Austin, and the festival was only a few days away. Many unofficial SXSW events continued as private last hurrahs.

The Lift Me Up trailer depicts Austin as a boarded-up ghost town before pivoting to a more hopeful tone. It presents footage from a sparsely but passionately attended show at Jai Thep, along with narration by musician Leslie Sisson of Moving Panoramas about a lone dancer making the most of the experience. Coasting on that high became a familiar feeling for musicians, artists and even coworkers and friends everywhere, anyone who knew they were together for the last time in a while.

Sisson’s cast mate, Kathryn Legendre, adds, “We all just revelled in that.”

The group, also including Alesia Lani and Evan Charles of Altamesa, was supposed to record a track together, as is custom for each season. The single, written by St.Clair, was slated for a group session at Abbey Road. Instead, he recorded it solo, and the documentary borrowed the name: Lift Me Up. Brecht decided to use the song for the final scene, admiring the way the musicians drive the story just by doing what comes naturally.

“In many ways, they script it,” says Brecht. “I’m just kind of there creating the landscape and then they’re on the journey.”

Even though the six musicians experienced higher stakes than many in the early uncertainty of the pandemic, they had a unique asset: an answers man. Brecht knew he was not just a film director; he was the tour guide and the team’s emotional guardian.

He says, “If they come to me with their needs or concerns or in a bit of heartbreak, I have to tell them that we’ve done a great job and we’ve worked really hard ... and right now, we’re at the mercy of something.”

Thinking of the current state of the group in the real world, Brecht calls the film release a “cliffhanger,” with a “denouement” still coming. He hopes the cast will reconvene to record, hug it out, and decide — as many around Austin are doing — how to wrap up their unfinished business. One of the perks of documentary filmmaking: No one seems disillusioned that COVID-19 disrupted their original storyline.

“If plans had to be canceled,” Horstmann says, “what cool plans.”

Project ATX6
Project ATX6's Lift Me Up premieres locally June 18. Project ATX6/Instagram
Project ATX6
The documentary goes behind the scenes with touring Austin musicians during the pandemic. Project ATX6/Instagram
Project ATX6
Project ATX6