Like Townes Van Zandt, Judge Brendan Babish once jumped from a four-story building to see what it felt like. It hurt. It really, really hurt.
"Well, many of the songs, they aren't sad, they're
Before Townes Van Zandt—Be Here to Love Me was released in New York City in the fall of 2005, I probably couldn't have told you who Townes Van Zandt was. The name would have sounded familiar, and I might have guessed that he was a musician. I say "might" because I would have had him confused with either old Lynryrd Skynyrd frontman Ronnie Van Zant or E Street Band member Steven Van Zandt (strangely enough, these three men are all unrelated). Regardless, I couldn't have named a Townes Van Zandt song even if you held a broken whiskey bottle against my neck.
So who was Townes Van Zandt? Well, that's not an easy question to answer. And watching Be Here to Love Me doesn't make it any easier. I guess the simple answer is that he was a folk singer. Still, for some that's a major understatement. According to contemporary country singer Steve Earle, Van Zandt was "the best songwriter in the whole world, and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that." That's pretty high praise for a guy whose career produced no major hits. Still, other respectable county artists, such as Emmylou Harris and Kris Kristofferson, echo Earle's praises.
However, like many musicians spawned by the drug-happy 1960s, Townes Van Zandt gained a significant notoriety for substance abuse (he died of heart failure on New Year's Day, 1997). From an early age Van Zandt struggled with booze, drugs, women (he was married three times), and his sanity. In Be Here to Love Me, director Margaret Brown devotes as much time to Van Zandt's demons as his musical output. This only seems to be appropriate because, unlike political folk singers like Bob Dylan or Woody Guthrie, Van Zandt's songs are personal and forlorn. Also, for non-fans like me, Van Zandt's troubled life is far more interesting than his music.
While a young man in college, Townes purposefully fell off a four-story building and landed flat on his back (to see how it would feel, as he tells it). Though he survived, his parents withdrew him from college and had him admitted to a nearby sanitarium. In a radical therapy Van Zandt was given "insulin shock treatment." As an unintended side effect of this invasive therapy, Van Zandt lost all memories of his childhood.
>From this moment on Townes seems to be dedicated to songwriting and self-destruction with equal vigor. In old videos we see him drinking whiskey and playing with a shotgun. Later he appears on talk shows in alcoholic hazes. On one radio broadcast, he can't even remember if he had written a particular song. Steve Earle, an old friend, tells a haunting story of Townes playing Russian Roulette in the woods outside his home. Margaret Brown includes interviews with several of Van Zandt's friends (including several fellow musicians such as Guy Clark and Joe Ely) talking alternatively about his brilliant songwriting and substance abuse. Of all these, Earle is by far the most cogent. The rest admirably attempt to recall their fallen comrade, but their stories and observations are often interrupted by bouts of grief or nostalgia.
Brown splices together concert footage and interviews in a seemingly haphazard style, which may be appropriate considering her subject's laid-back countenance. Still, with so many of the interviewees devolving into laughter and tears, and with Townes himself often too drunk to articulate, the film would have been well-served with a narrator. A narrator might have also provided much-needed background on Townes's personal life. We see three of his wives, but learn nothing about the marriages. Two of Van Zandt's adult sons are interviewed, and a young daughter is shown singing along with one of his songs, but there is scant information about Townes as a father.
Ultimately, your enjoyment of Be Here to Love Me is likely to be contingent on your appreciation for Townes's music. Personally, I found his songs earnestly sad and delicate, but slight and forgettable. That said, his music is not the kind that grabs you by the lapels and makes you take notice. With additional listens it could grow on me. Still, while I was captivated by the heartbreak of Townes's life, I often found my attention waning during the protracted segments on his music. So while fans of Van Zandt will surely embrace this touching tribute, I can only marginally recommend it to philistines like myself.
Palm Pictures has released a fine DVD of Be Here to Love Me. Most impressive is the pristine color and clear sound on old concert footage and television appearances of Van Zandt performing 30 years ago. These have got to be the best presentations of Van Zandt's early performances anywhere. Also included in the DVD's bonus features are three clips of Townes performing full-length songs. These seem to be taken with an old camcorder, and the sound and picture are appropriately grainy. For me, the best bonus features were the extended interviews. There's about a half-hour of extended interviews with many of the artists featured in movie (Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Guy Clark). Again, Earle's interviews are the most interesting, probably because he doesn't waste time providing bland plaudits. One of the great stories he tells is of a drunken Van Zandt, who had long been Earle's hero, heckling him between songs at one of his early gigs. For fans of his music, these bonus features may be as valuable as the film itself.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Palm Pictures
• Rare and Intimate Performances from Townes Van Zandt, JT Van Zandt, Devandra Banhart and more
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