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Van Zandt's New "Love"

New film captures heartbreaking life of a heartbreaking songwriter

September 23, 2004 12:00 AM ET
If you know your Texas music, it's a famous story: In 1970 a young Joe Ely picked up a hitchhiker on his way to Houston. The stranger left behind a copy of his album, which Ely and his fellow Lubbockites Jimmie Gilmore and Butch Hancock were knocked out by. They became the Flatlanders, a hugely influential band in what we now call "alt-country" or "Americana."

The stranger was Townes Van Zandt, best known for penning "Pancho and Lefty," and the man about whom Steve Earle famously said, "Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world. And I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that."

Van Zandt, who died of a heart attack on New Year's Day, 1997, after years of alcohol and drug abuse, is the subject of Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt, which had its world premiere last week at the Toronto International Film Festival. Austin filmmaker Margaret Brown's documentary is not just a true and moving portrait of an artist -- it's a work of art itself. Quietly adventurous, visually poetic and emotionally devastating, it's an unvarnished meditation on the darkness and beauty of Van Zandt's life -- and the collateral damage such a life can have on those who live it with you.

Brown and cinematographer Lee Daniel (Slacker, Before Sunset) firmly root the film with an enormous sense of place, not only physically but internally. Van Zandt's music is a spectral presence in the landscapes, skies and rain-soaked streets, presented dreamily in footage that Daniel slowed down and manipulated. The narrative thrust wanders, fades, hones in and then retreats again -- an echo of its subject. Though the film includes interviews with Earle, Guy Clark, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley, it couldn't be further from a PBS-style encomium.

"I just think that's boring," says Brown, a native Alabaman whose father Milton co-wrote the song "Every Which Way But Loose." "I hate films that are like, 'This guy's so great!' over and over and over and over. It just makes me think, 'Why do you have to keep saying it? Just show it. When I came to Townes, it was so visceral, hearing that music. I wanted people to have that same experience."

People are able to do so thanks to a wealth of raw material -- including home movies, old TV performances and, especially, early Seventies footage originally filmed by James Szalapski for his outlaw country documentary Heartworn Highways. There are twenty-five Van Zandt songs in the film, and Brown also had access to dark-night-of-the-soul phone conversations between the songwriter and writer William Hedgepeth, taped by Hedgepeth over the years. "I don't envision a very long life for myself," Van Zandt says in one talk. "I think my life will run out before my work does . . . I designed it that way."

"It was about paring it down to the essential idea of a guy who blew everything off to do this one thing," Brown says of how she focused the wealth of material. "In Townes' case, it really destroyed a lot of people close to him, while he gave a lot to people who weren't so close to him."

It's a testament to both Van Zandt and Brown that you feel the beauty and importance of his work even as your heart breaks for his family. Brown says that as the film unspooled, she couldn't stop thinking about Van Zandt's widow Jeanene and youngest daughter Katie Belle, who were not just up on screen but sitting right there in the Cumberland Theatre.

"It was extremely emotionally draining," says Jeanene Van Zandt. "I was wobbly on my feet, and Katie Belle was in tears. It was an emotional rollercoaster -- which is kind of what Townes was like. I spent more time with Townes Van Zandt than any other human on earth, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. My only regret was I couldn't save him. I still wish he was here."

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