Docuseries Mistakes The Comprehensive For the Essential In Well-Meaning Slog [Sundance]

Feb 13, 2023

Caught somewhere between a movie and a series, “Willie Nelson & Family” doubles down on the history and mythology of its namesake to stretch the latter into what would have been better served as the former.  Honest, introspective, yet rarely revelatory, the anthology often mistakes the comprehensive for the essential, and while it succeeds in explaining Willie Nelson to its audience, that’s about all it does. For fans of the Red Headed Stranger, that might be enough, but anyone looking to explore Willie’s place in the intersection of country music, pop culture, and the sociopolitical fabric of 20th America might be disappointed.
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Directors Thom Zimny and Oren Moverman don’t do the series any favors with the first episode, which struggles to find its voice between a linear telling of Willie’s past and a jump ahead to his mainstream success in 1975. It’s an issue the piece doesn’t resolve until the third hour or so, which claws through several returns into Willie’s childhood within an otherwise direct unspooling of the country music star’s rise from disc jockey, to aspiring songwriter, to struggling tour act, to industry legend. And while these detours have a thematic connection (they all build on Willie’s deep connection to his family), it too often drags the larger affair down.
Nowhere is this disparity more evident than in Episode 3, where it shows Willie getting comfortable enough in his own skin to become the pot-smoking, bandana-wearing, good-timin’ son-of-a-bitch that made him something more than famous: relevant. It’s a fun stretch for “Willie Nelson & Family” and is a payoff for the exhaustive (and at times, exhausting) origin story. And while the previous two episodes provide some much-needed context about his struggles in the more rigid Nashville system, one gets the sense that if the pace of this third episode was maintained throughout, this all might have been a tighter and tidier affair.
Even so, what makes it something of a slog at times is also one of the series’ strongest features: its refusal to mythologize its subject. Interviews and voiceover from Willie are the backbone of the larger narrative, and the man never makes excuses for his bad decisions or behavior over the years. He’s open about his troubles with alcohol, financial planning, his health, and his relationships, and Zimny and Moverman should be commended for keeping this from straying off into simple hagiography.
Yet, explorations into the contradictions that pop up through all of this (and are indeed fascinating) are few and far between. Willie is a man addicted to the road, yet he also values the bonds of family and friendship above all else: a difficult thing to do from a tour bus. Yet, the biggest miss of the series is rooted in what is the opposite of contradiction, and that’s Willie’s rise to stardom in an era when country/western music achieved mainstream success.
Episode 3 clears out some time to explain how Willie and Waylon Jennings shook up the country music landscape with their development of the “Outlaw” subgenre, and Episode 4 tracks his crossover into mainstream success with the ‘Stardust’ album. Yet how all of this fits into the explosion of the broader industry vis a vis 1970s “Country Pop” (Dolly Parton, John Denver, Kenny Rogers) remains unexamined. And while it is heart-warming to think that Willie finally broke through only when he grew out his hair and started living his best marijuana-laced life, the lack of contextualization within this broader environment (save one brief portion decrying the lousy 1980s) is a blind spot.
This is funny because many of the people on the fringes in this section of the story appear on camera to sing the praises of Willie, and give the series more than enough bona fides. Besides Dolly, the episodes also boast testimonials from Rosanne Cash, Kenny Chesney, Emmylou Harris, Sheryl Crow, Wynton Marsalis, Shelby Lynn, and a score of others. The admiration they have for Willie’s songwriting, stage presence, bravery, and humanity put iron in the narrative’s glove, and provide ample receipts for the bill of goods being sold, here. Indeed, when they say, “He sings to everyone,” it’s easy to believe.
As a straight bio exercise with admirable attention paid to all facets of the subject, “Willie Nelson & Family” passes the sniff test and even impresses at times. For those looking to explore how a singer-songwriter managed to remain at or near the inflection point of every major development in country music for 50+ years, and what that means about not just the man, but an industry and a nation at large, this ain’t it. One day someone will crack that code, and they might even be able to do it in less than 260 minutes. Until then, though, there’s this. [C]
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Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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