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Dallas Austin's cinéma vérité 

Without marketing support from his label, the Atlanta superproducer makes a 'record you can watch'

Dallas Austin's new album/movie 8Dazeaweakend is simultaneously whimsical and pretentious, silly and inspired, groundbreaking and clichéd. Telling the semi-biographical story of a privileged socialite whose parents have her on attention deficit disorder drugs, it preaches the perils of Ritalin but pretty much begs to be enjoyed while high.

Recorded by Austin's group Dallas Austin Experience and featuring contributors including George Clinton, Colin Munroe and Big Gipp (of Goodie Mob), the 8Dazeaweakend CD serves as soundtrack to the full-length film of the same name. It triples as a touring show, making for a highly unusual project that has left Austin's label, Universal Motown, completely confused.

Austin, of course, is one of the most decorated and popular producers of his generation, known for crafting and writing songs for TLC, Madonna, Michael Jackson and Boys II Men. More recently, he's been in the news for his dalliances with Britney Spears. (He insists that while they canoodled together in Atlanta about a year ago, their affair was over by the time gossip rags wrote about it last month.)

Other than an early '90s R&B album with the group Highland Place Mobsters, however, Austin's discography as an artist is limited. His new project was inspired by a sense that the music industry had become staid. "There weren't any stories left in music," he says. "I've always been a fan of [Pink Floyd's] The Wall and [The Who's] Tommy, and coming out of movies myself, I thought it would be fun to make a record you could watch."

8Dazeaweakend's movie component wasn't conceived as a proper film like Drumline or ATL, both of which he produced. Instead, upon its inception two years ago, it set out to tell the real-life weekend adventure stories of his group of friends, including actress April Clark, and his cousin, promoter Juan Farmer. Convinced that the antics of his racially diverse clique would make for a good yarn, he armed his amigos with camcorders and sent them out to shoot video of their lives. "I thought, 'This is a trip,'" he says. "I should capture this." He later fashioned a narrative out of their footage.

At that point, he had already conceived some of the tracks that ended up on the 8Dazeaweakend album, which mixes elements of psychedelic hip-hop, '90s trance and driving classic rock, and features Austin playing bass, guitar, keyboard, drums and kazoo. (He also wrote, produced and sings.)

After melding the music with the plot, he reassembled his buddies over a weekend to shoot the slightly fictionalized final version. Austin makes a few appearances, and Clark plays the lead. With film credits in ATL and Stomp the Yard, she's one of the only actual actors in the film. Most of the real names are changed, but little else. For example, Clark's experiences growing up wealthy and wild parallel those of her character Dazey Ryan, says Austin. Shot largely with hand-held cameras, the movie was filmed at spots around town, including Virginia-Highland, Decatur and Austin's studio just off of Northside Drive. "It was shot really guerilla [style]," he says.

Austin was pleased with the project's final result, but owing to its complicated, multiformat nature, his label Universal Motown declined to offer promotional support. "They said, 'This is incredible, you reinvented the album, but we wouldn't know how to market it,'" he recalls.

For Austin, flush with cash after nearly two decades of platinum hit-making, that wasn't really a problem. Believing 8Dazeaweakend would benefit from word-of-mouth recommendations, he began implementing his own viral marketing plan.   

It includes an aggressive Twitter campaign — promoting local scavenger hunts for cash via twitter.com/dallasaustin — and a series of live performances at colleges and clubs around the country. The shows feature the Dallas Austin Experience playing behind screens showing the movie, as well as visual effects like smoke and LED lights. In the style of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, attendees are presented with props including red-flashing glasses to help make the experience feel more participatory. The CD is for sale on iTunes, and Austin says the film will be available soon.

He asserts that his project "unravels the musical in a new way." While it's easy to get caught up in his excitement and the stellar music, the film itself is rather mundane. Despite its high visual production values, the sound and, not surprisingly, the acting is often poor. Big Gipp's performance is particularly hard to watch, and it's often difficult to hear what he's saying.

More importantly, however, Austin's message is simplistic and muddled. Interspersed with trippy collages and ironic scientific testimonies, it seems to contend that partying with your friends expands your mind but drugs like Ritalin stunt your development. Full of stoned-sounding, opinionated rants by its characters about parenting techniques and the pharmaceutical industry, it adds little to an otherwise relevant debate.  

Though Austin has clearly bitten off more than he can chew, he deserves kudos for attempting to mix mediums and tell stories in a new way. One suspects his next multimedia undertaking will up the ante. In the meantime, Atlanta can only benefit from having a local creative force of Austin’s caliber take such risks to produce interesting art.

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