With the passing of guitar legend Link Wray on Nov. 18, I was reminded of how we often remark that our deceased heroes are underappreciated, that they never got the recognition they deserved. That idea is where filmmakers Margaret Brown and Lee Daniel began with their profile of the late Townes Van Zandt, who died in 1997. His songs are among the most revered in the folk/country/rock genre, yet he never had commercial success and was generally overlooked while he was alive. As you can hear on records like 1972's High, Low and in Between, Van Zandt's songs were often mournful, created in direct response to a life that started with privilege before spiraling into trouble. Yet with that trademark ache, they're also oddly hopeful— another Van Zandt signature. A diverse group of musicians has performed and recorded his songs; among them are Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, Norah Jones, and the Meat Puppets.
With testimonials by Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Kris Kristofferson, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, and Steve Shelley, as well as footage from some of Van Zandt's captivating, enthralling live performances, Brown and Daniel make it clear that Van Zandt was treasured by many. The film shows Van Zandt's descent into disease and poor health—which, coincidentally, occurred during his foray into the world of grunge and rock—and here it's evident that monetary success would have allowed him a better life. The documentary, however, doesn't give you the idea that that kind of success is what he was after.
Brown and Daniel are relatively hands-off filmmakers. They use Van Zandt's songs—stories in and of themselves—to tell his history (25 are featured on the soundtrack). Old interviews, archival clips, and home movies allow Van Zandt himself to serve as a de facto narrator. Interviews with musician Guy Clarke, Van Zandt's close friend, as well as Van Zandt's three wives and their children, round out the film and make solid the notion that he was incredibly beloved—but his many, many fans could have told you that. (NR)