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Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt

Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt

Not rated, 99 min. Directed by Margaret Brown.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Dec. 9, 2005

Vivid yet impressionistic, Margaret Brown’s film tribute to the singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt brings the late musician and his career into rare focus. The documentary’s point of view can be as broad and rambling as one of Van Zandt’s story songs (Van Zandt is probably most well known for his song "Pancho & Lefty," which was memorably recorded as a No. 1 hit by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard), but as acute and direct as one of his distinct turns of phrase. Brown does not seek to analyze the reasons for the prolific musician’s abbreviated life (he died in 1997 of a heart attack at the age of 53), though she does look at his prodigious drinking (without ever using the word alcoholic) and talks with his three successive wives and now-fatherless children, as well as many other family members and friends. Even devotees of his songs may be surprised to learn some of the details of his early life: He was born a child of privilege in Fort Worth, sniffed airplane glue in high school, and later overdosed. One of his sisters off-handedly asks the filmmaker if anyone has yet told the story of how Townes fell out of a four-story window on purpose, just to see how it felt. After that incident he was hospitalized for shock treatment. At another point, Van Zandt’s first wife recounts how he locked himself in a closet immediately after their wedding in order to teach himself how to write a song and emerged with his first authored tune, titled "Waiting Round to Die," rather than some love ballad or other romantic fodder. Be Here to Love Me will intrigue newcomers to Van Zandt’s music as well as longtime fans. The film is rich with his songs, and the flavorful sampling is enhanced by lots of interviews with colleagues and cohorts as well as family. Insights are provided by musicians including Joe Ely, Kris Kristofferson, Steve Earle, and Guy Clark (who, with wife Susannah, offers pleasantly drunken commentary in an attempt to stay true to the spirit of his dead friend). Brown strikes it rich with the wealth of archival material she found to include: photos from all stages of his life, clips from his television appearances, Super-8 home footage, audio recordings, and more. Brown’s real secret ingredient, however, is the cinematography of Lee Daniel, whose camera often picks up the slight details that others neglect to see and whose contemporary roadside traveling footage is continuously used throughout the film as an evocative editing link. (It should be noted that both Brown and Daniel are Austin filmmakers, and also that Louis Black, one of the film’s producers, is the editor of The Austin Chronicle.) Despite all this material, Be Here to Love Me never becomes an ordinary biopic. The conclusion is never in doubt: The movie opens with Van Zandt prophetically stating, "I think my life will run out before my work does. I think I’ve designed it that way." It’s the latter half of this statement that forms the crux of the movie. Brown seeks to learn the price paid and the happiness earned by living as Van Zandt did, in total devotion to his muse, his music. This songwriter’s songwriter gave it all up for "the sake of the song," as he might say. Rejecting normality for nomadism, Van Zandt’s life was difficult, but, man, what a legacy of music he left. (See interview with Margaret Brown and Lee Daniel austinchronicle.com/issues/dispatch/2005-12-09/screens_feature.html.)
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