Sundance Film Festival 2023
Trailblazers and Icons
“Willie Nelson & Family”
“I’ve got the song of the voice inside me
Set to the rhythm of the wheel
And I’ve been dreaming like a child
Since the cradle broke the bow”
The new documentary series “Willie Nelson & Family” premieres tonight and gives fans a heartfelt and honest look at one of the great troubadours in music history.
Willie Nelson has the tales to tell of a long life that was truly lived. His is a life filled with highs and lows, love and heartbreak, whiskey and guns, and mayhem and music, all walking hand in hand sometimes.
Directors Thom Zimny and Oren Moverman lead viewers down the path of Willie’s seventy year-career through interviews with friends, colleagues, relatives, and remembrances from the man himself.
Developed by Nelson’s longtime manager Mark Rothbaum and Blackbird Presents Founder Keith Wortman, this is the first fully authorized film to explore the living legend and the first to receive his full participation and access to his archives, both personal and professional.
Willie seems to have always “been there.” Nelson was around for the birth of Rock & Roll (doing time as a DJ), struggled through the manufactured suit and tie-wearing Country music of the fifties and sixties, and changed the genre in the seventies by finally doing it his way, bringing in the “Outlaw style” that blew the doors and minds off Nashville.
Zimney and Moverman’s film is a fount of information, allowing their subject to guide his own tale through his words and especially his music, as each of its four episodes begins with a live performance.
We hear him speak on ol’ “Trigger,” his guitar that was named after Roy Rogers’ horse. The deep-rooted bond between Willie and his instrument happened immediately. “I knew that box could sing… it was near my heart… it became a part of me.”
As Nelson’s longtime friend and harmonica player Mickey Raphael tells the camera, “Willie’s been through a lot but keeps going. If something were to happen to Trigger? That’s it. It’s over.”
One of the strongest anchors in Nelson’s life is his connection to his sister Bobbie. In voiceover Willie’s “Sister Bobbie” speaks eloquently of her brother and their time together as children. The two formed a bond in childhood that has never been broken. Bobbie Nelson was at her brother’s side, playing her beautiful piano, until her death in March of 2022. For Willie, his sister was the one constant relationship that he didn’t screw up.
As he says lovingly, “If I was the sky, Sister Bobbie was the earth.” The closeness of the two siblings and the way the filmmakers present it is absolutely moving.
Perhaps the most powerful moment comes when Willie Nelson is brought to tears by Ray Charles (who would die a year later) singing Nelson’s “A Song For You.” What is captured is a moment of deep respect and true friendship, as Willie Nelson is visibly humbled by his dear friend. It was smart to include this powerfully effective sequence, as it speaks to his loyalty, a commendable trait that every interview subject gushes over.
Anyone who follows the singer/songwriter’s career knows of his personal troubles. Nelson’s three divorces and four marriages, the alcoholism and brief thoughts of suicide, the decades of struggling to be heard, his financial downfall with the I.R.S., everything is included. Willie Nelson is an open book. To know the man, we must balance the bad with the good, as he does for himself.
The tonnage of praise bestowed on Nelson warms the soul. From his lawyer to his fellow musicians to his friends and family, each person who speaks on their time with Willie reveals a deep connection as if they were all kin.
This is where the film shines the brightest. The directors let Nelson speak on the hard times that made him a better person. His is a life of many acts and hard-learned lessons that molded him into the wise man that has carried him into his 90s (he turns the big 9-0 this year). Every single person interviewed is in awe of his vision, both inward and outward and his ability to persevere.
As one person says, “Willie discovers the transformational nature of songwriting… you sing The Blues to lose The Blues. So, some of the saddest songs Willie ever wrote are some of the most healing.”
Great songs are timeless, and Willie Nelson has made the music world rich with them. The outlaw troubadour cut his own path and continues to endure.
The music, the man, and all he has given (and continues to give) are legendary.
“Willie Nelson & Family” is an eloquent tribute to a unique soul.