These days everything and everyone is “iconic.” But here, at the center of five rich and unrushed episodes, is the real deal. As he approaches his 90th birthday, the composer of such immortal numbers as “Crazy,” “Night Life” and “On the Road Again” is still writing songs, still playing to concert crowds. Delving into the incomparable songbook, directors Thom Zimny and Oren Moverman show how Willie Nelson broke the country mold and transcended genre boxes, again and again. Their authorized biography — the musician’s wife and his manager are executive producers — is a love letter, to be sure, and like Nelson himself it doesn’t dwell on negativity, but there’s nothing simplistic or naive about it. Willie Nelson & Family is a portrait of a man who has made music and lived life on his own terms, in good times and bad.
The series is a reminder to the casual fan of the breadth and depth of Nelson’s music, a compelling invitation to the uninitiated, and, for aficionados, its four and a half hours offer intimate face time with this peripatetic soul. The directors visit him on his home-away-from-home tour bus, on his beloved Texas ranch, and in Maui for some three-part harmony with his sons. They curate a fascinating selection of archival material and interview Nelson’s friends, family and a starry array of fellow musicians.
Willie Nelson & Family
The Bottom Line
Time well spent.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Indie Episodic Program)
Directors: Thom Zimny, Oren Moverman
4 hours 23 minutes
Zimny (Springsteen on Broadway) and Moverman (who co-wrote one of the great music biopics of recent memory, Love & Mercy) shape the material with a cinematic thrust — appropriate for the story of a farm kid who was inspired by cowboy movie stars and eventually made a few big-screen appearances himself. Propelled by chronology but deepened at every turn by chords of feeling, the doc moves through the discography, the marriages, the career ups and downs, the famous $32 million tax problem, the resurrections. The masterful editing by Brett Banks and Chris Iversen interweaves existing material, a good deal of it never before seen publicly, and Bobby Bukowski’s handsomely lensed new footage. Like a good road trip, it flows.
The filmmakers’ smart point of entry to the decades-long saga is Nelson’s breakthrough concept album, 1975’s Red Headed Stranger — a choice signaling that this will be an organic telling, not a connect-the-dots mechanical one. Given total artistic control and a $60,000 recording budget by Columbia Records, he saved most of the money for equipment and instruments for his band and, working quickly, they created a stripped-down sound, against the polished grain of mainstream country records. As Brenda Lee, one of Zimny and Moverman’s many spirited and insightful interviewees, succinctly puts it, “At that time in Nashville, different wasn’t in.”
He may have done his time as a shorthaired, cardigan-clad crooner, but Nelson always played with the beat in ways that country artists generally don’t; keeping up with him could be quite the challenge, as Dolly Parton attests. As a singer, he’s a distinctive interpreter no less than Sinatra, whose phrasing was certainly a touchstone for him. One of the series’ many exquisite performance clips is a live rendition of “Always on My Mind” in its entirety. Lee, who was the first singer to record the ballad, recalls that when she heard Nelson’s version, she knew that this was “how it should’ve been done.”
A throughline of the series and a key strength is the way it renders irrelevant the prepackaged categorization of music. Immune to fashion and indifferent to marketing trends, Nelson was, from the beginning, a crossover natural. Patsy Cline’s indelible recording of “Crazy,” one of his first big successes as a songwriter, was a hit on both the country and the pop charts. Years later, when label execs wanted him to put the “outlaw country” formula on repeat, he instead forged a creative partnership with Booker T. Jones, asking him to produce the standards collection Stardust. The album was a massive hit whose importance Jones makes no bones about: It connected country and soul.
Such connections, the doc makes clear, are essential to who Nelson is. He’s the country superstar and weed devotee who defied anyone’s expectations by duetting with Julio Iglesias. His annual Fourth of July Picnic concerts have formed common ground for rednecks and hippies. Wynton Marsalis, who offers some of the most potent commentary in the series, notes Nelson’s melodic sophistication and marvels at his fluency in a variety of “harmonic environments.” With great emotion, he describes the feeling of playing with him, and the directors include a clip of them sharing the Jazz at Lincoln Center stage.
Farm Aid co-founder Nelson grew up on a farm, raised by his music-loving grandparents in Abbott, Texas, and was writing songs and playing guitar in bands before he turned 10. His influences included conjunto, polka, the big-band sound of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys — “basically a jazz band in cowboy hats with fiddles,” in Shelby Lynne’s vivid description — and, above all, the great Romani guitarist Django Reinhardt. Nelson’s band is not called The Family for nothing; one of the crucial elements of its alchemy was the killer piano of his older sister, Bobbie, who died at 91 in March 2022. Her commentary courses through the series like a rippling river. “Music can take you through life,” she says. “That was what we were born to do.”
As to her brother’s nomadic ways, she says, “Wandering off is just his nature.” Trying to break into the music biz, he crisscrossed the country with his young family, from Texas to the Pacific Northwest to Nashville and back home again. The doc acknowledges the less-than-tidy ends of three marriages — the fourth, to Annie D’Angelo in 1991, is still going strong — but doesn’t linger on the emotional fallout. Whatever the exes would say, his children form “one big tribe,” as one of his daughters puts it, and have shared the road and the stage with him.
The doc proceeds with an unforced sense of on-the-road discovery, and it builds powerfully. The final chapter packs a real punch with Marsalis’ comments and a stunner of a clip from Nelson’s 70th birthday concert, when he shared the stage with good friends Ray Charles and Leon Russell. Charles was ailing, and would be gone within a year. Russell died in 2016. The clip is bursting with life. As Nelson says, “You can’t destroy energy.” Willie Nelson & Family burns bright with the energy of music, no category required.