Final South by Southwest: Billy Bob Thornton Docs Willie Nelson
South by Southwest
Billy Bob & the King of Luck
When manager Mark Rothbaum and a sweetheart investor approached rogue film maker/actor/screenwriter/musician Billy Bob Thornton, they were hoping he could create a documentary about Willie Nelson that would be as singular as the both the subject and the man they were enlisting. They proposed a multi-million dollar budget; they talked about Martin Scorcese’s work with the Stones and the Band.
Thornton, a multi-dimensional creative, agreed.
Then it all fell apart.
Intrigued by the notion of capturing one of American music’s true iconics, the Oscar-winning leader if the rootsabilly Boxmasters didn’t want to walk away. Figuring he could figure it out, Thornton opted to continue with the project on his own.
Captured on tour, on the road, in the towns of Luck and Abbot, Texas and in abstractions, what emerges isn’t just the portrait of country music’s Buddha outlaw or a man larger than life, but an abiding sense of the love, friendship and humanity that has underscored a career now in its fifth decade.
Rendered in black & white, employing still and obscure television performances by Nelson and the people who had hits with his early songs, “The King of Luck” teases out the time and place from which Nelson’s art emerged and the complication of a man – as Kristofferson says – “who we didn’t think was gonna make it, because he was just too deep for what was going on.”
That grounding in almost lost small towns, truck stops on the verge of failing, middle aged men in the late 80s is the soil that Nelson’s truth emerges from. Intriguingly, there is little of Nelson’s voice involved – but rather interviews with those unseen people who’ve been woven into his life for decades. Tour managers, sound engineers, lighting directors and of course, the band – making the bill “Will Nelson & Family.”
Almost completely, it is a story of running away with the circus. Innocents wanting to play, showing up, sitting in and never going back. “Why would you want to?” one musician asks. Indeed, watching the jokes, seeing the conviviality and hearing tales that show a kinship that makes a community from an extended circle of people subscribing to the way Willie Nelson lives.
Touching on Farm Aid, on Willie World radio, on bio-diesel and especially Nelson’s vast array of friends – from coach Darryl Royal to Texas Jewboy Kinky Friedman, actors Woody Harrelson and Owen Wilson to Hall of Fame songwriter and sometimes co-star Kristofferson and Country Music Hall of Famer Ray Price who cyt “Nightlife,” Thornton’s film is a cozy epic: a tale of a great man defined by humility and humor. Stories of times had, values embodied, songs that touched them set the tone for many of the interviews.
And then there’s his real family. Sons and daughters weighing the famous man with the loving father. Though they come at different times – Paula remembers the family moving every month “when the rent came due” from her childhood as the daughter of a dreamer who’d not made it, Lama tells of singing with her Dad as a little girl on the road only to realize “other families weren’t like that” upon entering school and claimstaking artist Lukas tells of learning to play guitar because his father asked him to as a birthday present – there is such love, grace and acceptance, the toll of being gone has been resolved in the times they were together.
It is that tenderness that tempers the Outlaw side of Willie Nelson, a man for whom there seems to be no dark cloud to. When Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson tells of Nelson offering him a song after his multiple Grammy-winning Western swing band had lost their record deal, he chuckles and says, “I was so excited – a Willie Nelson song…”
Only to realize the song Benson’d been given, one that aptly summed up the state of his affairs was a skewering indictment of record company people called “Write Your Own Songs.” “Needless to say, we didn’t get that deal…”
So it is. So it goes. As the charging “Still Is Still Moving” demonstrates, Nelson – like the true blues giants – is all about the fluidity of living. Move on, taste the moment, laugh if you can, cry if you need to, but always demonstrate dignity and compassion.
To demystify a man who was once sewn into a sheet by his first wife and beaten with a broomstick, who stole “Electric Horseman” from Robert Redford with an ad libbed line about a bottle of tequila and a keno girl who can suck the chrome off a trailer hitch, who knew to let the make-up artist tell him whether to cut his hair off – and ended up marrying his wife of the last 24 years is no small trick. But in keeping it small, the vastness of Nelson’s soul is shown rather than told; for Thornton, who’s best work is often intense looks at odd people, it suits his milieu perfectly.
Quirky in that realm of “serious” documentaries, it captures Nelson. What else is there?