Looking Back on 15 Years of the Townes Van Zandt Documentary
Producer/Director Margaret Brown revisits her movie
Early in Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt, Margaret Brown's seminal 2004 documentary on the Texas songwriter, Van Zandt's first wife, Fran Petters, recalls a doctor's note he received upon being rejected from the Air Force in the late Sixties. Diagnosed as "an acute manic-depressive," the doctor recommended that her young husband needed to "wander for a bit and find himself."
Whether or not Van Zandt ever found himself or just became more deeply lost is debatable, but he never really came back.
Brown's documentary pivots on the examination of an artistic life as absolute and consuming as Van Zandt's. For all his struggles with addiction and mental illness, he remains one of Texas' most influential musicians two decades beyond his death, yet his life was turbulent, transient, and damaging to himself and those around him. Brown, daughter of a songwriter herself, was just out of film school at New York University when she made the film. She said, "As I got to be an artist in college, I found out about Townes and wondered: To be truly great, is that what it takes? To throw everything away for your art? ... It was kind of a very romantic – and very male – notion of what it meant to be an artist. That's what I wanted to make a movie about, that question."
Her documentary, which receives a special 15th anniversary screening this week at AFS Cinema, never succumbs to the romanticism or hagiography that often surrounds Van Zandt. Instead, through interviews with fellow artists like Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, and Willie Nelson and a remarkable and revealing sit-down with Guy and Susanna Clark together, she pierces through the mythos with a clear and compassionate lens on the songwriter's life and its effects, both brilliant and devastating. The reflections of his sons and daughter strike most poignantly, turning the title on its head – from Van Zandt's poet's plea, to the reality of those that loved and needed him but were often left behind. "You can't sugarcoat that stuff," she said. "When you start making a film, at least the way I make a documentary, when you go in it's a question, not an answer. And then you start talking to people and reaching your own conclusions."
Van Zandt likewise comes across as appropriately complicated and multifaceted in the film, a brilliant and unique artist in spite – not because – of his struggles. Especially in the long phone call recordings Brown uncovered between Van Zandt and writer Bill Hedgepeth, the songwriter's humanity cuts through his overshadowing legend. "I really feel like, in a way, those tapes were the key to the film," she attested. "And making those conversations visual was the key to the film for me. I feel like Townes came alive in this intimate way. I feel like he really trusted Bill, and you can feel it when he's talking. And he's kidding, he's bragging, he's intimate – it's all of it. I think his sort of specific way of being really comes across in those recordings."
As for Brown's core question of dedicating a life "for the sake of the song," 15 years and an award-laden career after her documentary debut, the filmmaker has at least found a definitive answer for herself on the notion of total sacrifice for art: "And no way does it take that," she insists. "It's such a male archetype and such bullshit, and I don't want to buy into that. As someone in grad school, it was an interesting question to me, but as an adult, no way does it take that."
KUTX presents Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt @AFS Cinema, 6406 N. I-35 #3100, on Sun., June 16, 4pm. Tickets and info at www.austinfilm.org/screening/15th-anniversary-be-here-to-love-me-a-film-about-townes-van-zandt