Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt
Of all the mythologized outlaw singer/songwriters who bubbled out of the Texas in the 1960s and ’70s, Townes Van Zandt’s tall and romantically dark shadow exerts the strongest gravitational pull. He was a Giacometti stripe of taut muscle and sinewy tendon topped with an insouciant lash of longish, wavy black hair, knife-slit sunken dark eyes, and thin lips that creased into fearless smirk or, more common, affable frown. Van Zandt sang of drifters and loners perpetually waiting to leave—be it their current failed predicament or this planet altogether—and the man himself lived almost as recklessly. His fondness for wandering was bested only by a taste for drink and heroin, at a time when his proverbial demons made his hard-living friends Guy Clark, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Steve Earle, and Jerry Jeff Walker fear for his life. By the time a heart attack claimed Van Zandt in 1997 at the age of 52, his peers could barely believe he made it that long.
Less surprising is his still casually overlooked 30-year career, which produced scant hits, never for himself: see Nelson and Merle Haggard’s “Pancho and Lefty,” or Emmylou Harris’ “If I Needed You.” As seen in Margaret Brown’s loving, impressionistic, and candid documentary Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt, you get the feeling this scion of Fort Worth oil money lived in constant sorrow not because he didn’t have other options but because he liked it there. In an interview, his sister says the young Van Zandt “fell” off the fourth floor just to see “what it felt like,” which landed him in psychiatric care.
Director Brown acts almost more as action painter and archeologist here, threading together Van Zandt’s story into cinematic ellipsis out of archival television footage, home movies, and her own interviews, interspersed with mood- and scene-setting coverage shots of whirring scenery, as if stared at from a moving car, and Van Zandt’s dirt-road drawl in occasional voice-over from old tapes and interviews. It’s an approach that swirls into the documentary’s greatest strength, a whorl of sources coming together to sketch a richly admirable and refreshingly frank portrait of a man as prone to wreckage as he was to genius. From discovering glue huffing at an Illinois boarding school to his post-fall shock treatment and, eventually, three wives, Van Zandt is depicted as a sunlike personality who drew people to him even though they knew the frustrating dangers of getting too close. Be Here to Love Me probably won’t turn Van Zandt newbies into fans, but for those die-hards out there, it’s a must.