Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt
March 14, 2006
Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt (2004) is an absorbing documentary about a tragic genius musician in the fine tradition of Bruce Weber’s tribute to jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, Let’s Get Lost (1988). Be Here to Love Me examines the equally turbulent life and career of Townes Van Zandt, a brilliant songwriter/musician but with a deeply flawed personal life. He had a beautiful, melancholic voice with the lyrics to back it up. His music was a stirring fusion of the blues, folk and country. He was a musician’s musician – well-respected by his peers but virtually unknown on a mainstream level.
Contemporary Guy Clarke describes Van Zandt’s songs as “sparse,” allowing the listener to fill in the gaps and project themselves onto the songs. The film presents us with a lot of archival footage of Van Zandt performing and mixes this with the requisite montages of old photos of him growing up, yearbook snapshots and so on. From an early age he had a rebellious streak that separated him from others. Life was not easy and his esoteric behaviour was misdiagnosed as being manic depressive and he was placed in a mental hospital where he underwent shock treatments that wiped out all of his memories.
In the 1960s, Van Zandt immersed himself in the Hippie lifestyle, dropping LSD and drinking large amounts of alcohol. He eventually moved onto much harder stuff and got addicted to heroin. He went through many lean years and was rediscovered by Seattle bands like Mudhoney and Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth who tried to produce an album for Van Zandt but his mounting medical problems made it impossible for the album to be finished.
Friends and family members recount numerous colourful anecdotes about the man and a riveting portrait begins to take shape. For example, one friend describes how he started sniffing airplane glue and in order to keep the fumes going while he was asleep, Van Zandt stuck two tubes of the stuff in his mouth. Of course, the tubes leaked and glued his teeth together! There is also some truly stirring footage, like Van Zandt playing for a few friends and one song that moves an old man to tears that is a truly powerful moment to behold.
Everyone took a back seat to his music at one time or another. He left a trail of wives and children in his wake. Musician Steve Earle recounts a chilling episode where Van Zandt played a game of Russian Roulette in front of him and how much this freaked him out. That’s not to say that the man didn’t have his lovable, likeable side as well. People also tell funny, affectionate stories about Van Zandt.
Van Zandt would write songs that would become popular hits for the likes of Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. Be Here to Love Me is a fascinating look at this man’s troubled life and how his hardships informed the music he made. He really led the life depicted in his songs and this gives them an undeniable authenticity. The best thing this doc does is make you want to check out a Townes Van Zandt album or two and discover for yourself what made this guy such a revered figure amongst his peers.
“Performances” features one by J.T., one of Van Zandt’s sons, one by Devendra Banhart and three by Van Zandt himself.
If you’re hungry for more entertaining anecdotes about the man, “Additional Interviews” provides a wealth extra footage with people in the doc, like Guy Clarke and Steve Earle but also people who didn’t make the final cut, like Michael and Margo Timmins from the Cowboy Junkies and Steve Turner from Mudhoney. Amongst the highlights is Earle telling a funny story about being heckled by Van Zandt at a gig and how he turned it back on the veteran musician.
Also included is the U.S. theatrical trailer.
Finally, there is an audio commentary by director Margaret Brown, cinematographer Lee Daniel and musician Joe Ely. Brown talks about where the archival footage came from and, in some cases, how hard it was to get. Ely tells some personal stories about the man. This is a low key track and one wishes that Brown talked more about the origins of this doc and how she got into Van Zandt’s music in the first place.