Austin City Limits: Celebrates 40 Years (DVD)

A fine, if slightly flawed, tribute to one of television’s most significant shows.

Texas has never been shy about espousing its greatness, so it’s no surprise that Austin City Limits began as a public access show dedicated to showcasing the music of the Lone Star State. And why shouldn’t there be, considering how fertile the Texas soil has been in giving us icons of country, blues, and rock’n’roll?

What is surprising, however, is that the little show that began with a taping of Willie Nelson in 1974 would grow and expand outside of Texas to include numerous stars of a multitude of genres, spawning a huge annual festival.

For the 40th anniversary, the folks behind Austin City Limits staged a celebration, (cleverly) dubbed Austin City Limits: Celebrates 40 Years. It’s a concert film that gathers several generations of American performers, such as Willie Nelson, Buddy Guy, the Foo Fighters, and Alabama Shakes, for a tribute to this home-grown show.

Jeff Bridges (who shows up to play a few tunes), Sheryl Crow, and Matthew McConaughey (a proud son of Texas) host an evening of performances featuring a collection of some of the biggest names to cross the ACL stage. Twenty one songs are included by everyone from Willie Nelson to Bonnie Raitt. As is common with these kind of one-night events there are also some notable collaborations, as when Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris tackle “Crazy” or Kenny Wayne Shepard joins Double Trouble for a medley of Stevie Ray Vaughn tunes.

I don’t want to rain on the parade of Austin City Limits: Celebrates 40 Years, but there’s definitely something a bit off about the concert. These kinds of “greatest hits” shows are always a bit problematic, whether it’s the Bob Dylan 40th Anniversary show or the various tributes to fallen idols (Stevie Ray Vaughn got one, as did Harry Chapin and Townes Van Zandt). Perhaps because the structure is so similar–get a bunch of people who don’t normally play together to perform on stage, often in combination–it can leave even the most celebratory concert seeming a tad funereal. Which isn’t aided by the choice of performers here. I love Willie Nelson, and I think there’s a beautiful symmetry having him perform on both the show’s pilot and this celebration. However, he’s also 81, and the demographics for the rest of the performers skew a lot closer to him than they do to the under-30 crowd.

I don’t want to say there’s anything wrong with having an older set of performers on the show … I’m a fan of most of them. However, one of the great strengths of Austin City Limits is that it has welcomed a wide variety of performers throughout the years. Old bands, young bands, popular bands and obscure ones. The collection of artists here feels conservative, and the nods to alternative with the Foo Fighters and Latin with Grupo Fantasma just doesn’t cut it. Again, it’s not that the performers here are bad, but the check-list style collection that leans on singer-songwriter material backed by an anonymous-sounding band just doesn’t fit with the overall ethos of ACL.

But for what it is, it looks and sounds fine. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer has a slick, contemporary broadcast look to it. It’s not spectacular, lots of these performers aren’t famous for their pretty faces, but the stage and backdrops look fine both in close-up and in motion. Colors are okay, as are black levels. The 5.1 surround track is more impressive. Dynamic range is good, as is clarity. The surrounds are used pretty well, with a decent amount of atmosphere. Overall, the film looks fine and sounds really good.

Extras include 45 minutes of bonus performances from the same people involved in the main feature. Other than cutting for time, it’s not clear why some performances in the feature were included in favor of the excellent off-cuts included as bonus material.

If you love these performers or just want to celebrate Austin City Limits, I won’t blame you one bit. Many of the performers on here are rightfully legends in music, and the show has bought enough good will over its forty years that it doesn’t have to release only perfect material. Sure, I’d rather they release their entire back-catalog on DVD, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t an okay effort.

Austin City Limits: Celebrates 40 Years is a fine, if slightly flawed, tribute to one of American (public) television’s most significant shows. It might be a bit too conservative for some fans of the music, but there’s no denying these are solid performances from legendary players.

Not guilty.

Paramount, 110, NR (2014)


1.78:1 anamorphicwidescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)

English SDH

Bonus Performances



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