“I don’t envision a very long life for myself — like I think my life will run out before my work does, you know? I’ve designed it that way.” So speaks legendary folk/country singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt at the beginning of Margaret Brown’s documentary. And he was right, of course, since he died of a heart attack on Jan. 1, 1997, at the age of 52.
As much a legendary figure for his troubled, unstable, self-destructive life as for his work, Van Zandt’s story — born into wealth, plagued with problems and obsessions, multiple marriages, addiction problems — is a natural for a documentary. Thankfully, Brown’s film manages to sit back and observe this life in an equally nonjudgmental and nonglorifying manner — avoiding two traps that are easy to fall into with such material.
The temptation to deplore the waste, or to dangerously romanticize the artist as a long-suffering genius whose pain was the source of his creativity, is great in these situations. Both are touched on by other people (Kris Kristofferson fills in the second approach quite nicely), but the film merely records these impressions without subscribing to them. And this — along with the personality and creativity of a subject about whom even those who “knew” him best can only speculate — is the great strength of the film.
Somewhat less successful is Brown’s attempt to visualize the world of Van Zandt using the director’s own impressionistic music-video imaginings of the things that fueled his songwriting. This sometimes works, but more often it feels a bit like filler. Overall, it’s a compelling look at the artist.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke