SXSW Film Review: Dory Previn: On My Way To Where

A songwriter like no other gets an intriguing portrait

Credit: Bruce McBroom

The phrase, “I am cringe but I am free” might as well have been coined about the music of Dory Previn. This is not an insult; indeed, it is a compliment of a very high and specific order, and Dory Previn: On My Way to Where does a solid, interesting job of explaining her work’s how and why.

Directed by Julia Greenberg and Dianna Dilworth, ...Way to Where stitches together vibrant archival footage with Emily Hubley’s intriguing animation to essay Previn’s strange, complicated life and equally eccentric work. (Hubley’s animation is key to a fascinating reveal, which the doc does a terrific narrative job of keeping hidden.)

After a rough childhood (her strict Irish Catholic father was also mentally ill and once held his family hostage in their home at gunpoint) and a few years as a struggling songwriter, Broadway producer Alan Freed hooked her up with composer Andre Previn, where they began collaborating and eventually marrying. He wrote the music, she wrote the lyrics, usually for treacly tunes for movie soundtracks, but even her early lyrics often had a singular vibe to them -- Google the song “Contain Yourself” for a prime example. (Clips of the movies from their early Sixties work remind you of why the New Hollywood absolutely had to happen.)

Things got weird in the late Sixties, when Dory found out her husband (who traveled often, leaving the aerophobic Dory at home) had impregnated a young actress and Beatles fan named Mia Farrow. The couple split up and Dory had another breakdown but this time recovered into a new career: Laurel Canyon-style singer-songwriter of the extremely confessional variety, a job that wasn’t exactly full of 45-year olds at the time. (Critic Ann Powers does a nice job of contextualizing Previn’s whole deal.)

Songs such as the downright savage "Beware of Young Girls" (about Ms. Farrow – yowza), "Don't Put Him Down" and the amazing “Lady With a Braid,” about an older (in 1970s context) woman having a one-night stand don’t really sound like anything else coming out of that scene.

It also wasn’t quite acoustic rock or folk: To contemporary ears, Previn’s show tuney/standards-style arrangements make Carly Simon sound like Led Zeppelin (and my kingdom for the doc unpacking the music itself a little more). This might explain why her often-brilliant work fell so completely out of fashion or failed to attract more than a cult following (the fact that she refused to tour didn’t help either.)

And it is powerful stuff. The documentary does a good job of showing how naked Previn’s lyrics were, how willing she was to transfer the raw contents of her 50-minute hours with her shrink to the studio. The interview clips and animated diary entries suggest, even as her struggles with mental illness never quite ended, she seemed to learn to live with them and make some sort of peace with her demons. The music remains, ripe for rediscovery and continued interpretation.

Dory Previn: On My Way to Where

Visions, World Premiere

Tuesday, March 12, 10pm & 10:30pm, Violet Crown
Wednesday, March 13, 6pm, AFS Cinema

Catch up with all of The Austin Chronicle's SXSW 2024 coverage.

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SXSW Film 2024, Dory Previn: On My Way To Where

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