Athens, GA—Inside/Out

Before there were enough hipster hoods for Forbes to compile a list and before Seattle exported grunge to take the underground mainstream, there was Athens, Georgia. With a bohemian element bolstered by the college town’s laidback atmosphere, Athens became a breeding ground for creativity in the ’80s. Success stories like REM and The B-52s were just the tip of the iceberg; the town came to epitomize the “college rock” of the era.

Originally released in 1987, Tony Gayton’s Athens, GA—Inside/Out captured the town at its apex. Pre-Green, REM’s popularity hadn’t reached critical mass, and The B-52’s had yet to release “Love Shack.” As such, the Athens scene was still very tight-knit, and Gayton captured not only the camaraderie between bands, but the sense of community amongst artists of every stripe. So while the bands of the time, which also included Love Tractor, Pylon, and The Squalls, provide a focal point, other figures tied to the scene are featured prominently in the movie. The film opens with Ort, a record store owner and local character, and there are extensive interviews with poet John Seawright and visual artist Jim Herbert. One of the most interesting segments of the film is the time spent with Howard Finster, the visual artist who did the cover art for REM’s Reckoning as well as the Talking Heads’ Little Creatures.

Of course, music is still very much the focus. In that regard, the movie really shines. Between interviews with all the acts, he captures gigs at the town’s musical epicenter, the 40 Watt Club. In this respect, Gayton infuses the film with the energy that coursed through the town, although REM’s video-esque performances of “Swan Swan H” and the Everly Brothers’ “(All I’ve Got to Do Is) Dream” in an abandoned church come off a little stilted. Equally important, though, is the local color that the film conveys. Athens wasn’t a fabricated burg of hipster emporiums, but a real town where the people treasured its native flavor.

It’s been 25 years since the release of Athens, GA—Inside/Out, and to commemorate the anniversary, Omnivore has reissued the film on DVD packaged with its soundtrack on CD for the first time. Both include extras; the film is augmented by audio commentary from Gayton and producer Bill Cody, as well as interviews with Jack White (about the Flat Duo Jets) and The B-52s, while the CD has five bonus cuts, including Love Tractor and REM’s Peter Buck doing an awesomely herky-jerky version of the Stones’ “Shattered.”

With many of the places and people in the film now gone, the Athens of this time has also ceased to exist. But in a metaphoric sense, this Athens has also disappeared. The kind of community that existed there in 1987 doesn’t seem to occur naturally anymore or without quickly being franchized and packaged. In that sense, this film is even more precious as it captured something that may never occur again.
Stephen Slaybaugh