As a musician, I truly savor films which are made in effigy, in historical retrospect or just in plain celebration of the lives and artwork of other, considerably better known musicians. And the musician or band in question does not play into this fascination; it is becoming acquainted with small pieces of the people, and their experiences that aided in producing unforgettable songs and cultural movements, which renders me indiscriminate. Basically, I’m open to watching any musical documentary and when asked if I would review “Townes Van Zandt: Be Here to Love Me” I hastily approved the request.
Not immediately familiar with his work, I cued up one of his songs, “To Live is to Fly” and heard a beautiful guitar being plucked under a sweet melancholy voice which sang, “Living’s mostly wastin’ time/ and I’ll waste my share of mine/ but it never feels to good/ so let’s don’t take too long.” This callous, poetic sentiment, which was paradoxically betrayed by the hope in his instrument and longing in his voice, foreshadowed a lot about the Townes Van Zandt portrayed in the documentary.
Director Margaret Brown paints with a universal stroke in her understated tribute to this cult folk hero. Van Zandt is re-birthed through old concert footage, audio recordings and testimonials from some of his closest companions. We come to know him as the prototype of that self destructive friend whom we can not help but love no matter how much he abuses us or himself. Van Zandt’s soul was ignited by songwriting, performing, and a quest for personal identity, but his body was easily infiltrated by the temptations of addiction. On the road, Van Zandt garnered moderate fame, and also on the road he versed himself in a multiplicity of addictions, including alcohol, drugs (heroin), wives and in those inspired moments, songs. The symptoms of those addictions ruined his health, impaired his work and strained his interpersonal relations with the ones he claimed to love.
Though born into a wealthy and prominent family in Texas , Townes was drawn to the rolling stone lifestyle of the singer-songwriter era blossoming in the early sixties. Instead of wasting away his life in the idol languor common to those endowed with a trust fund, this charming rambler began playing local clubs, working out his chops so that he would be able to give people his songs and at the same time pay for booze. These initial flurries into the mystique filled world of the traveling musician soon consumed and propelled him into a long lasting, albeit tumultuous career.
What I admire most about the documentary is its lack of timidity. While Brown does work intently to shine the legend light on Van Zandt, she never backs away from the sad uselessness of addiction. Townes Van Zandt certainly had a penchant for recklessness spiraling through his chromosomes. He supposedly threw himself off of a four story high balcony on purpose, pinned his fraternity emblem through the flesh of his bare chest and attempted to huff three tubes of airplane glue at once, resulting in the gluing of his mouth shut. We are then left pondering an important question: What comes first? The Chicken or the Egg? Does the stereotyped lifestyle of musicians lead to addiction or is the creative mind just more vulnerable to these temptations? In this case, the viewer is left to judge.
Even though “Be Here to Love Me” is a comprehensive study of a gifted musician, it could also serve as a great deterrent for anyone interested in taking up drug use. Van Zandt eventually loses his life at a fairly early age, but death is sometimes not as feared as those consequences which must be endured in life. His musician friends who are interviewed, like Guy Clarke and Kris Kristofferson, have minds that have clearly been blown by years of heavy abuse. Guy Clarke’s far out laugh is both the most entertaining and frightening facial gesture I have ever seen. And Van Zandt’s chronically riddled health and odd relationships with his multiple wives (not simultaneously), children and friends are fair warning as well.
Ultimately, “Be Here to Love Me” is a great ode to Van Zandt and the culture he represented. The subtly poignant soundtrack is weary, apathetic and touching, and the footage of Van Zandt performing and conversing with his audiences will make you smile uncontrollably. Music lovers will surely enjoy the documentary, and fans of Townes Van Zandt will no doubt drink a toast. We all know a Townes Van Zandt, but in the world of music, there was only one.
Margaret Brown (director)
CAST: Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Townes van Zandt