This review of the music documentary Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt was originally published on the defunct movie blog Cinematical on December 2, 2005.
Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt is not another Behind the Music. It is an In Front of the Music.
Abandoning the notion that movies about artists need to establish well-known art and investigate its origins, Margaret Brown‘s documentary of Townes Van Zandt establishes the little known artist and allows its audience to contemplate the consequences of his being rather than the significance of his craft. Though his creative endeavors were not an incidental part of his existence, they don’t define him, and I am sure that the film would be just as enthralling without a single note of his on the soundtrack.
In fact, the film doesn’t even open with its subject’s music. Instead, it begins with audio of Van Zandt on the telephone as he recites, but does not sing, some lyrics that he’s just thought up. He stumbles through the words, many of which he has trouble remembering, and stops short without relating them in their entirety. Then, only after this revealing intro, a recorded version of the song fades in.
It is rare that an audience so immediately and concisely is able to comprehend the table of contents that make up a person’s life. The introduction directly conveys the two primary aspects of Van Zandt’s character and therefore the two main aspects to be covered in a film about him: his acceptance as a poet foremost and recording artist second; and the awkwardness of his genius.
Brown succeeds so well in communicating the essence of the largely unknown singer-songwriter, who died in 1997 at the age of 52, that her film has the ability to transcend his lack of popularity. It would be a shame if the only people to see this amazing profile were his fans. There just aren’t enough of them. Although Van Zandt has been celebrated since his beginning as something of a cult figure, he sold relatively few albums, most of which were long out of print, and his major success was in having other singers top the charts with covers of his songs.
You don’t need to have heard of him. You don’t even need to be turned on to him to appreciate the film. Chances are, you won’t be. His music just isn’t that commercial; his vocals sound even less trained than Bob Dylan’s, and in my opinion — and contrary to what Steve Earle says in the film — his songwriting is nowhere near as good. But I would sooner rewatch the footage of Van Zandt that Brown has compiled than see another Scorsese-directed documentary on Dylan.
Some of that footage includes a live performance here, a talk show appearance there, but the fascinating parts come in the form of old stock and video shot throughout Van Zandt’s life, in which he is candid and responsive and more than a little obtuse. He enjoys being on camera but seems oblivious as to why the camera enjoys being on him.
He is an extraordinary personality, with an appealing cap of innocence sitting snugly upon an intriguing head full of self-indulgence. Where a biopic on him – let’s say starring Jeremy Davies just to put it out there – would most certainly be fixated on Van Zandt’s alcoholism, self-destructive behavior, and three failed marriages, in the current fashion of using character flaws as evidence of a person’s humanness, the documentary displays layers and dimensions that no script or biography could ever convey.
Van Zandt’s casual yet disturbing presence is at its best when he inadvertently represents himself as a loon. At one point he relates himself to Van Gogh only because of a painful earache that he’d like to get rid of by way of amputation, and even then he has only enough sensibility to refer to the painter as, “that Gogh fella.” Don’t ask me how he’d forget the Van part.
The root of his madness can be attributed to the insulin shock treatments he received in his early twenties after doctors said he was suicidal. They thought this, though, because he’d intentionally fallen backward from a fourth-floor balcony out of curiosity. And even that wasn’t the beginning of his self-destructive behavior.
He was born into a prominent and oil-rich Texan family and seemed to be representative of the stereotypical all-American boyhood. An avid athlete and well-adjusted student, he only picked up the guitar early on because it got him more recognition from girls, not because he’d hoped to pursue a career in it. In fact, he had hoped to be a lawyer, and later he would have just assumed joined the army if they hadn’t denied him on account of insanity.
But he was also continually a part of the counter-culture and his high school yearbook depicts him as much for his glue-sniffing habits as it does his membership on the football, baseball, and wrestling teams. It is the part of him that might have influenced more of an interest in an unorthodox career in the performing arts, but instead, it eventually evolved into self-sabotage, as he constantly ruined his opportunities for success.
Despite the capacity for Brown to stand firmly on her accumulation of demonstrative material, she does go for the usual talking head stuff as well. The conventionality of the included interviews isn’t as disappointing as they would be in another film, though. Be Here to Love Me is such a departure from the typical adulatory portraits that having friends, family (particularly ex-wives) and peers give praise is a necessary, contrasting supplement in the defining of this complex artist.
Be Here to Love Me may not have the benefit of a familiar song with which to connect its viewers, as do those biopics of bigger names. But it makes do with what it can give to viewers that they haven’t been given before: a surprisingly deep understanding of an otherwise obscure artist. In the end, it is a far better gift than the dramatic reminders of pop treasures we already enjoy.