“The Late Great Townes Van Zandt”
“Tribute” documentaries are a tricky proposition. Too often these pieces, despite the best intentions of the filmmakers, reek of fan club mentality — esoteric films created solely for the enjoyment of an audience who already appreciates the subject. And even if I’m part of that audience going in, I can be easily turned off by documentaries that devolve into little more than a collection of talking heads heaping enormous amounts of praise on the subject at hand.
I had the usual apprehensions before I sat down to watch “Be Here to Love Me,” director Margaret Brown’s film about extremely influential, but also somewhat obscure country singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt. In this case, I was not part of the already converted, having never heard the name Townes Van Zandt until about a year ago (and as I walked into the screening room, his music was still completely unfamiliar to me). Brown’s documentary, while needing about the first half of the film’s running time to take shape, introduced me to an artist whose work I, and it appears many others, should have been aware of much earlier. While it’s obvious Brown is a deep admirer of Van Zandt, the director adds different wrinkles to the usual documentary storytelling form to make this movie feel fresh and more intimate than what we’ve come to expect.
Relying primarily on archived footage, and using interviews as a way to enhance the narrative rather than as the basis of it, “Be Here to Love Me,” details the rich, sad, and successful, albeit in an untraditional way, life of Townes Van Zandt. Administered shock therapy as a child growing up in late 1940’s and 1950’s Texas, Van Zandt’s childhood was almost completely wiped from his memory. In the late 1960s, his melancholy country/folk songs started to gain attention, and Van Zandt was soon recording albums. By the mid 1970s, all six of his full length records were out of print, which coincided with a lengthy hiatus from the studio, pushing him even further into the background of popular music culture. His career would be resurrected a few years later, and in the ’80s he again attained recognition, but primarily as a songwriter instead of a performer (the Van Zandt-penned “Pancho & Lefty” became a huge hit for Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard). Van Zandt would continue to perform and record until his death, due to a heart attack, in 1997.
This certainly isn’t the first film made about an underappreciated/tortured artist whose greatest appreciation came after his/her death, and perhaps there is little to separate Van Zandt’s story from many others. Director Brown seems aware of this, and her decision to steer the film away from hero worship territory is what makes it resonate deeply. Along with clips of Van Zandt’s live performances, the film is aided by home movie footage that contains a slightly surreal quality (it might have to do with the ubiquitous presence of alcohol and a shotgun). This footage helps eliminate distance — one’s perspective of the subject, in this instance, is uniquely close.
Brown also rewards viewers with the opportunity to sample quite a bit from Van Zandt’s catalog. His plaintive, heartfelt songs — very sad in tone — are timeless and stand as reason enough to see this movie. Since viewing this film, I’ve purchased one of his CDs, and many more will undoubtedly follow their way into my collection. Fellow musicians Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Steve Earle each take moments to champion the man and his work, and the interviews with Van Zandt’s three children (eldest son J.T. is a spitting image of his father) and two ex-wives help paint a thorough portrait.
“Be Here to Love Me” begins like a thoughtfully made but rather indistinguishable documentary. As the film progresses and carves out its own personality, it truly becomes a very fitting tribute to the artist — a man who the spotlight often avoided, but whose influence constantly appears to grow more pervasive. Townes Van Zandt poured his pain into his exquisite music, and his legacy is indeed the stuff of legends.