Margaret Brown’s textured, elegiac Be Here To Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt is a deeply plangent music documentary. It begins with the legendary “songwriter’s songwriter” (as Kris Kristoffersen puts it) reciting some lyrics in his doleful voice, then musing on how much longer he’s got. Death’s intertwined with music throughout this tale of a man content, it seems, to remain in the shadows.
Brown melds home-video footage and interview clips with grainy, poetic glimpses of the road: streetscapes, an open motel door, treetops ghosting into the sunlight. For Van Zandt, on the road so much, such a roaming life “takes blowin’ everything off … and goin’.” There’s the feel of washed-out snapshots and yellowed postcards to much of the doc, its aged, fading celluloid images matching Van Zandt’s wonderfully weathered voice. The flickering-ness of memory also reflects the man’s great loss. His parents, concerned about his behaviour in college, had him given, on the advice of a doctor, insulin shock treatment for three months—the process erased his childhood recollections.
While the film slides over Van Zandt’s addiction problems—there’s little sense of his alcoholism or the depth of his heroin use—and his relationships (he had three marriages), it doesn’t prettify the man. He “could be really cruel to the people he loved,” says his eldest son. A wheelchair-bound Van Zandt wants bigger cups of alcohol to get through what would prove to be his last shot at an album, produced by Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley; “he just blew [chances] up,” claims longtime manager Kevin Eggers, though he seems to have blown the deal for Seven Come Eleven, potentially Van Zandt’s big breakthrough.
He remained an “underground success” for decades, with covers of his “If I Needed You” (by Emmylou Harris and Don Williams) and “Pancho and Lefty” (by Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson) making it big. Van Zandt seemed unfazed by all that—late in his life, he says, “I’d like to write some songs that are so good that nobody understands them—not even me.” Be Here To Love Me, never exposing its subject to too much harsh light, preserves this enigma just enough that it makes you want to go back to the music after you’ve caught these glimpses of the man.
Tue, May 5 (7 pm; performance by Dan Smith at 6:30 pm)
Directed by Margaret Brown
Metro Cinema at the Garneau
Originally released: 2004