Documentarians Thom Zimny and Oren Moverman offer an in-depth profile of Shotgun Willie.
No doubt about it: This is The Year of Willie Nelson. As always, the living legend continues to make music, entertain fans, draw new converts and record new albums at a phenomenally productive pace. But what make all of this even more remarkable in 2023 is — well, he turns 90 in a few weeks. And yet: He’s. Not. Slowing. Down.
On Feb. 5, Willie will be a major competitor at the Grammy Awards, with nominations in no fewer than four categories, including Best Country Album (A Beautiful Time) and Best Country Song (“I’ll Love You Till the Day I Die”). Two weeks later, he kicks off his zillionth concert tour with appearances in St. Augustine, Florida. Come March 3, he’ll release his 98th studio album, I Don’t Know a Thing About Love, a tribute to songwriter Harlan Howard, the County Music Hall of Famer credited with concisely defining country music as “three chords and the truth.”
And just yesterday, plans were announced for Long Story Short: Willie Nelson 90, a star-studded extravaganza scheduled for April 29-30 at the historic Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, where Willie will be joined by Miranda Lambert, Chris Stapleton, Lyle Lovett, Neil Young, Sturgill Simpson and a host of other luminaries as they celebrate the occasion — Willie’s birthday is April 29 — with spirited musical performances and an abundance of great vibes.
Meanwhile, looming large this week among the word premieres at the Sundance Film Festival, there is Willie Nelson & Family, an exhaustive, illuminating and utter engrossing five-episode documentary detailing the music, life, influence and philosophy of Shotgun Willie. The epic undertaking intertwines archival material and revealing interviews with Willie, his close friends and his extended family, as filmmakers Thom Zimny (The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley: The Seeker) and Oren Moverman (The Messenger, Rampart) construct, to quote the Sundance catalogue, “an intimate and cinematic memoir of the Red Headed Stranger, traversing the highs, lows, and in-betweens of Willie’s personal life and professional career.”
Willie Nelson & Family, critic Sheri Linden wrote in her rave review for The Hollywood Reporter, “is a portrait of a man who has made music and lived life on his own terms, in good times and bad… [It] proceeds with an unforced sense of on-the-road discovery, and it builds powerfully. The final chapter packs a real punch with… 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.
We had the opportunity to talk with Zimny and Moverman a few days ago. Here are some highlights from our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Cowboys & Indians: Let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room. Willie Nelson will be turning 90 in a few weeks. And while we all hope he’ll live forever, this is probably the last time he’ll be around to personally contribute to a biographical project this exhaustive and immense. How much pressure do you think that put on you? And how much pressure do you think this put on Willie?
Oren Moverman: It’s not disingenuous to say that it didn’t put any pressure on us, because I think we were setting out to tell the story. We were privileged to be invited into that world. And Thom and I are people who think about mortality all the time anyway. And death is one of our favorite subjects. So we lived with it very comfortably.
Thom Zimny: And I think the beauty of Willie Nelson & Family is that it demonstrates that Willie’s an artist who’s still very active. And he’s on a journey. He is part of a journey right now that is still happening. So there was no feeling of, we needed to capture this while there was a sense of the clock. While we were there, Willie was working on new music. While we were there, Willie was exploring new sounds and working with his producer. Willie, the artist from the early days, is reflected in the environment that we shot him in. So in some ways, we never ignore the realities of time. But at the same point, there wasn’t any pressure to tell the story — because we tried to just keep up with Willie. He had a lot of different thoughts, and a lot of different ideas, and is still very, very active as an artist.
Moverman: But also on the subject of death — as you see in the fifth episode when Willie talks about it, he has an attitude that’s just so positive and just so inspiring that, again, it wasn’t something that was hovering over us. And when you’re with him, you really do get the feeling that he’s going to live forever.
Thom Zimny's The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash
C&I: Thom, you didn’t have to worry about your subject looking over your shoulder when you made your excellent documentary The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash. But how different is it when you are documenting the life of a living person?
Zimny: Well, I think Oren and I were really, really, really lucky to be welcomed into an environment that gave us a full sense of the history — but also really didn’t put any constraints on us as artists, as filmmakers. I think right from the very beginning, it started with some key people in Willie's world, like Mark Rothbaum, Willie’s manager. Things like that made Willie accessible to us, so that we could do the thing that as a filmmaker you always hope for — which is have time, and a conversation, and develop a sense of trust.
So it was a very different experience, because I think Oren and I were able to draw upon the history of Willie with the family, and use visuals from the estate, with archives and music. But at the same time, we had to keep an open mind, because we didn’t know what to expect when we landed there. And that’s the magic of working with an artist who’s still with us and still very, very active: The story’s not done. If anything, we just stepped into it, and we tried to keep up with it.
C&I: Something that comes through repeatedly in Willie Nelson & Family is the Willie’s virtually universal appeal. I mean, there are still some malcontents out there. But Willie seems to cross all generational lines — and political lines. I could see Donald Trump and Joe Biden sitting down together at a Willie Nelson concert and enjoying it. What do you think is the secret of that? Or is there a secret? Is it just because he’s Willie?
Zimny: Good question. When I think of the power of Willie’s music, and how it’s able to cross all the lines and touch so many different people in different places, with different backgrounds, beliefs, whatever — he reaches an audience through the power of song. But also, after a period of time we started to understand a little bit that Willie’s world is a world that represents a lot of different freedoms. And that is expressed in the journey of his song. So you can step into a Willie Nelson concert, and connect to the pure country of it, and the gospel. There’s a lot of different places you can find a connection. And at the same time, he’s constantly demonstrating for us as filmmakers this freedom and desire to challenge.
And we were really conscious of wanting to make a film to the best of our ability that stepped into the Willie world — didn’t mimic it, but stepped into the chaos, the beauty, and also the openness of it, where anyone can enjoy these songs, and the powerful message will overtake you. With Willie, it’s always a surprise. There was a point where you had to give up a sense of control, because if you thought you were going to go down a certain road, a new fact was discovered, a new bit of music, a new challenge. You started to try to go with the flow of his world.
Moverman: I totally agree with everything you said, Thom. And I would add just there’s a sense of honesty that you get from Willie. And not just honesty in his work, but honesty in the man and how he lives his life in a really modest way. He’s dedicated to the road, he’s dedicated to his fans. We call the movie Willie Nelson & Family. And that may seem on the surface to be about Willie and his immediate family, his blood relatives. But really, he considers his bandmates, his fans, the record-buying public — he considers all of them family. And he has an ability to somehow become this consensus artist where we all feel that this is a real human being, a great artist, and we just connect with the music and, frankly, with what we perceive of the lifestyle. Which, as you’ll see in the movie, is very philosophically solid. Which is just to be honest, and follow the golden rule, do unto others, that kind of thing.
And I think that speaks to a lot of people in a time where, as you said, there’s still cynics out there that are still looking to trap the other side in some gotcha moment. And Willie doesn’t have any of that. He’s just completely open. And that openness is really inviting, and reads as very, very sincere.
C&I: Something else that comes across in Willie Nelson & Family — the sheer variety of Willie’s music. Yes, he’s primarily known as a country artist. But he has also recorded and performed everything from jazz to reggae to Gershwin.
Zimny: And we really tried to reflect that as much as we could. That’s why it ended up being a film that’s five hours long, with over 80 interviews. Because we wanted to live in the details of Willie’s exploring different genres of music. And not just sum up things with, OK, then he was an outlaw and move on, and break down a lot of the beauty of his taking chances and trying new approaches to the music. And also, just a lot of it didn’t have the feeling of big decisions. It was in the moment, the spirit of the moment. So the film tries to really honor those beats without losing sight of a story that’s moving. I’m always shocked by how Willie seems like he’s explored so many different genres. But then when you look at the very first record by Willie, it reflects a guy who understood and loved blues. And we try to show that a little bit, too.
Moverman: And we talked a lot about it because it connected us to a piece of America that we now no longer recognize. This guy grew up on 1930s and 1940s radio. Now, everything is so niche and so marketed that you have different formats on different stations. But he grew up with all that music available to him. And he soaked it in. Obviously, he was enormously talented, and started writing. And what’s reflected in him is something for everyone, every kind of genre. And he doesn't even differentiate between those things. I don't think he ever saw himself as a purely country artist.
And so in a way, the message that’s hidden in the man is also what you alluded to in your previous question. Which is, what we all connect to is his openness to all these genres. That’s actually a reflection of what America really is. Or it’s supposed to be. As opposed to the way we sort of channel ourselves to listen to only this kind of music, that kind of music. All of it is music. And he kind of champions that.
C&I: Finally, when can our readers hope to see — and embrace — Willie Nelson & Family?
Moverman: We are selling the movie at Sundance, So we'll see where we go, and hopefully spread the love of Willie everywhere.
Photography: Sundance Institute/Timothy D. Easley