Where do you start when telling the story of an artist who’s been consistently productive, even genre-redefining, for more than 70 years, through multiple eras, tragedies, triumphs, partnerships, hits, losses, and setbacks?
That’s the essential challenge facing the creators of Willie Nelson & Family, the first authorized documentary about the storied country singer/songwriter, his intensely collaborative extended clan and admirers. The five-part documentary series debuted today in the Indie Episodic section at the Sundance Film Festival.
To open Willie Nelson & Family, the creators started with a little bit of Luck, the faux Western village Nelson built on his ranch in the Texas Hill Country (”When you’re here, you’re in Luck. And when you’re not, you’re out of Luck,” Nelson jokes). It’s also where Nelson hosts an annual barbecue and concert each spring tied to nearby Austin’s South By Southwest Festival.
Luck provides an emotional center for a relentlessly itinerant musician who has been out of Luck a lot, both figuratively and literally.
As Nelson’s classic song suggests, he’s perpetually on the road again, even at age 88, and generally quite happy to hang out mostly in his luxury tour bus as it convoys around the country with his band’s three other land yachts.
But Wilson also has had bad luck too, some of it self-inflicted: three divorces, the suicide death of his eldest son, parents who abandoned him and sister Bobbie, a Christmas Eve fire that wiped out his Tennessee farmhouse, and a $32 million tax bill that saw the IRS temporarily seize the Luck ranch, his studio and other properties.
To its credit, especially for an authorized biography, the show doesn’t flinch from addressing those many down sides of Nelson’s storied careers, though it spends relatively few of its 263 minutes on any regrets or reconsiderations Nelson may have had.
Nelson, for instance, doesn’t talk in the documentary at all about his son William “Billy” Nelson Jr.’s suicide at age 33. Other family members are circumspect in discussing the unimaginable impact of his son’s death on the singer. It’s perhaps not surprising, given the pain of such loss, but also an example of the limits of an authorized documentary, even a wildly expansive one like Willie Nelson & Family.
The documentary is far more willing to dive into Nelson’s unique spiritual blending of a traditional Texas Protestant upbringing and music with his adult embrace of Eastern religious tenets such as reincarnation, which “started making a lot more sense to me,” he says.
More broadly, as with too many streaming-era docs, the project is best pitched for devoted fans. They’ll be able to tune in for a long time, with nearly 4.5 hours of programming across five episodes. For that, the documentary almost certainly is intended for a streaming distributor with the shelf space to give fans more of what they want.
The creators certainly have plenty to work with. Especially early, directors Thom Zimny (Emmy and Grammy winner for Netflix’s
Springsteen on Broadway) and Oren Moverman (an Oscar nominee and Emmy winner for The Messenger and Love & Mercy) skip around Nelson’s long and fascinating history as one of the most important, adventurous, and inclusive figures in country music history, and his cross-over success relatively late in a hugely productive career.
After that initial Luck visit, the first episode focuses on 1975’s audacious song cycle Red Headed Stranger, perhaps country music’s first concept album, and certainly the first to earn a gold record for selling 1 million copies.
Among the tidbits from the documentary: the Red Headed Stranger title song, an instant-classic murder ballad right out of country’s greatest traditions, was a frequent bedtime song for his children, said daughter Paula Nelson.
“It’s not a toe-tapper, let me tell you,” she cracks wryly.
Beyond the unexpected triumph of Red Headed Stranger, the first two episodes cover Nelson’s scuffling early years in a recursive way, trying to dip into his recent life before circling back through his upbringing, first marriages, and slow start in country music as a hard-to-pigeonhole singer who could write a damned good song for others.
The established star Faron Young gave Nelson one of his first big breaks as a songwriter, turning Hello Walls into a No. 1 hit in 1961. Decades later, Nelson would return the favor, recording an entire album of duets with Young.
But that first era of Nelson’s career was more about what other stars did with his music, none more notably than Patsy Cline, who gave Crazy a gut-wrenching interpretation that remains one of her most enduring performances.
Collaboration would become a hallmark of Nelson’s career, the doc makes clear, and not just duets with Young and an endless procession of country stars, or with the Mt. Rushmore-level colleagues of The Highwaymen or The Outlaws. Later, as Nelson’s reach spread beyond traditional country, he would make hits with unlikely collaborators such as Leon Russell and Julio Iglesias.
The most notable collaborators, however, are his own family, beginning with sister Bobbie, who played alongside him in church as a child, and then on stage with him for most of the past half century. She has an appropriately prominent role in the documentary, as do Nelson’s musician sons/band members Lukas and Micah.
Nelson’s real challenge in his early years, the doc makes clear, is his unique phrasing as a singer, sometimes spilling out a rush of words ahead of the beat, sometimes hanging far behind, bobbing and weaving like a boxer. His style was unlike anything in country’s rigid expectations for its performers, back then and perhaps even still.
“We didn’t understand,” musician Bill Anderson says of Nelson’s phrasing. “Willie was so far ahead of his time, and the rest of us had a hard time catching up.”
The influences of both Frank Sinatra and Romany jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt mashed into Nelson’s childhood adulation of “singing cowboy” film stars such as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, and the jazz-influenced Western swing of Bob Wills.
But as he navigated career ups and downs, and repeated shifts in country music, that phrasing would keep Nelson distinctive. So too was his musical adventurism, which would create another landmark in 1979’s Stardust, produced by soul pioneer Booker T. Jones and built around decades-old standards from Tin Pan Alley songwriters such as Hoagy Carmichael.
Stardust became the biggest album in Nelson’s career, cementing his crossover status far beyond the weed-toking hippies and redneck cowboys who somehow happily cohabit his scores of concert appearances every year.
The doc interviews many of Nelson’s family and band members; collaborators such as singer Brenda Lee, jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, and producer Don Was; journalists such as Texas Monthly editor John Spong; and other genre-busting country stars such as Shelby Lynn, Roseanne Cash, and Dolly Parton.
That expansive approach has many charms, especially for the Nelson fan, who will treasure vintage clips of his performances across most of that long career, scenes from his friends-and-family poker and domino games in Luck and Hawaii, life on his tour bus, and more.
The sheer girth of the series may, however, be substantially less compelling for the casual fan, especially wading through the complicated first two episodes before getting to Nelson’s more successful eras. But, to paraphrase one of Nelson’s many hits, if you’ve got the time, honey, Willie Nelson & Family is money.