In his dilapidated double-wide in the sticks, a man leans his rangy frame against a kitchen counter, strumming an acoustic guitar and singing quietly for a few drinkin' buddies. "Better'n waiting around to die," he murmurs, as a friend crumples into beery tears.
Margaret Brown's new documentary of Townes Van Zandt, Be Here to Love Me, weaves career-spanning performance and interview footage together with old home movies, anecdotes and photos. The man who penned "If I Needed You" and "Pancho and Lefty" receives tribute from peers including Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Guy Clark and Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth.
Despite testaments from these luminaries that he was a "songwriter's songwriter," only Van Zandt's obscurity and self-inflicted failure kept him from being a household name -- the same reasons he's nearly mythological. His songs instantly seize the most tender scars, and rip open the loneliness beneath with a restrained economy.
The film also contains much beauty and pain -- like now-grown son JT discussing his father's music and dissolute, born-to-lose lifestyle which led to his death in 1997 at age 52. But for all the lonesomeness and death-baiting, on camera Van Zandt's aw-shucks warmth and charm are undeniable.
Ultimately, the film raises an uncomfortable but familiar question: Was Van Zandt willingly subservient to a vision larger than himself that consumed him spiritually and physically, or a phenomenally selfish and self-pitying alcoholic and addict who coincidentally wrote a handful of powerful songs? Avoiding easy answers to a complex man, this film's a worthy introduction to, as he titled one of his albums, "The Late Great Townes Van Zandt."