“My dad’s whole life revolved around what he called the groove,’” Shawn Sahm says early on in “Sir Doug and the Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove,” which premiered Thursday night at the Paramount Theatre as part of South by Southwest. That’s as good a one-sentence summary as is possible for a musician and personality who utterly defied summation or categorization, chronically shifting gears and changing locales as he constantly searched for wherever the groove would appear next.
Arguably no other place embodied Sahm’s groove as much as 1970s Austin, where the San Antonio native landed shortly after soaking in the flower-children heyday of the Bay Area in the late 1960s. First-time director Joe Nick Patoski’s film gives special attention to those Austin years, but it provides a glimpse at many other phases of Sahm’s life as well, from his San Antonio boyhood to his surprise rise to pop stardom with the Sir Douglas Quintet to his recording sessions in New York with legendary producer Jerry Wexler. The film also touches on Sahm’s surreal early-1980s European career revival, an under-the-radar escape to western Canada in the late ’80s, and his last hurrah with the Texas Tornados in the 1990s before his sudden death from a heart attack in 1999 at age 58.
For Austinites, that mid-’70s stretch likely will be the most fascinating. Home-movie footage of the drive out west to Soap Creek Saloon on Bee Caves Road, where Sahm often played (he lived in an adjacent house), brings back the spirit of that era. Some intriguing discussion centers on how Sahm was so central to the spirit of Austin in those years, yet it was Willie Nelson who became the city’s international musical icon. “In my mind, he’s one of the most important guys in Texas music,” Ray Benson says. “Willie Nelson and Doug Sahm: Willie’s famous, Doug’s not.”
Could, or should, have the Outlaw renaissance been a story of Willie & Doug, rather than Willie & Waylon? It’s intriguing that Nelson, whose most prominent biography was written by Patoski, is not interviewed in the film, and an opening interview segment with Terry Lickona of “Austin City Limits” posits a possible rivalry between the two (though Lickona denies that). But the sheer breadth of Sahm’s musical interests may have limited his ability to hone in on a mass-appeal genre. Further, as Shawn puts it, “Every time he got the fruits of what he worked for, it freaked him out to the point where he kind of recoiled, and unintentionally threw a wrench in it.”
Interview subjects include Sahm’s longtime bandmate Augie Meyers, his children Shawn, Shandon and Dawn, and close friend Bill Bentley, a longtime Warner Bros. executive who gradually becomes a sort of de facto narrative voice for the film. An impressive collection of historical documents constantly flow across the screen, from black-and-white photographs to live concert footage to a heartfelt goodbye letter Sahm penned to Austin in 1977 to a reel-to-reel recording of his wife telling Doug that she’s leaving him.
The moments that end up meaning most are the occasional bits of interview with Sahm himself, which are interspersed with commentary from friends and associates in a way that almost makes it feel as if Sahm is still with us. And although the population numbers have changed dramatically, his explanation of Austin’s cultural demographics in the 1970s sheds light on how Austin got weird in the first place:
“We got, what, over 200,000 people there, 40,000 or 50,000 of them are students. And not counting the other 30,000 who just dropped out who went to school two years ago. And I bet you if you got it down, of 220,000 or 250,000 people in Austin, I bet there’s 100,000 groovers.”
Additional SXSW screenings of “Sir Doug and the Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove” are at 2:30 p.m. Friday at Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar and at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Vimeo Theater in the Convention Center. There’s also a “Sir Doug: The Making of a Music Documentary” panel at 12:30 p.m. Friday at the Convention Center, and a Doug Sahm Tribute concert at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Paramount Theatre.