Willie Nelson’s world is a nice place to visit … and, yes, you probably do want to live there. That’s one good reason Willie Nelson & Family, a documentary series that premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, plays out over five laid-back but thoroughly absorbing hours instead of having been deemed sufficient at theatrical feature-length. The most obvious factor in going that long may be the sheer length of Nelson’s life and career to date — he turns 90 in April. But on a more philosophical note, given the Zen calm Nelson projects, would you really want to experience his presence in a rush instead of as a ramble?
“There was never any point at which we thought we could take in this life in less than a couple of films,” says Thom Vimny, who, along with Oren Overman, co-directed the project, which is in the process of being sold. “Having made films about other artists and having it in the feature format duration was always a terrific challenge: How to contain a whole life into 120 minutes, or even 90 minutes? What’s different about Willie is you just can’t comprehend doing that at all.” And that’s saying something, considering that Zimny did somehow find a way to make things that compact with the lives of Johnny Cash (2019’s The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash) and Elvis Presley (2018’s Elvis Presley: The Searcher). (Zimny may be best known for his many projects with pal Bruce Springsteen, including Springsteen on Broadway, but none of those were career-encompassing.)
Says Moverman, whose credits include work on the dramatized scripts for the Bob Dylan film I’m Not There and the Brian Wilson biopic Love and Mercy, “Willie is like Dylan in the sense that, if you look for perfection in Willie World, you’re gonna fall on your face, because that’s not what he’s trying to do. He’s not trying to sing perfectly … he’s just in the moment. And as Don Was says, he goes all the way in, gets to the essence, and that’s where he lives. We had a format that gave us more time, so we didn’t have to just go to the essence quickly and then get out. We had time to tell stories and find chapters of his life to go through. But I think we were blessed by a guiding star of Willie Nelson’s music and life to understand that if it was a standard, polished piece of docu-tainment, we’d be doing a disservice to the story.”
When the release of Willie & Family is announced, chances are it will be in a form where viewers are allowed and perhaps expected to experience the five roughly hour-long episodes individually. But when the project premiered at Sundance in January, rather than just show one or two installments, as is customary for episodic TV premieres at a festival, it was presented as a big ol’ binge-watch — the ultimate test of whether Moverman and Zimny took the right approach with it.
“We showed it all, which was amazing … to watch a crowd take in Willie’s world that way,” Overman says. “There was a 10-minute break after episode 3, but yeah, it was one session. We were astonished and delighted to see that no one left and everyone stayed for the Q&A.” (And in case there’s any question, no, there were no weed handouts to the audience, although in keeping with the subject, eventual home viewers may choose to do a marathon on their own terms.)
Assuming it does get released this year, as expected, Willie & Family, which was developed by Nelson’s manager, Mark Rothbaum, and Keith Wortman, founder-CEO of Blackbird Presents, will be part of an elongated 90th-birthday celebration for Nelson. This month, the star — who is keeping up his usual pace of at least one studio album a year — will release I Don’t Know a Thing About Love, an album of songs written by classic country tunesmith Harlan Howard. In April, Nelson will be the subject of not just a two-night all-star tribute at the Hollywood Bowl — also produced by Blackbird, that sold out in minutes — but of a tribute album, The Next Waltz’s Tribute to the Red Headed Stranger, produced by Bruce Robison, which features Ray Wylie Hubbard, Steve Earle, Sheryl Crow, Margo Price and others. And in February, he’s one of 14 nominees to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this fall. Given the universal good will he enjoys, the chances of Nelson not being voted in, following his friend Dolly Parton’s induction last fall, hover somewhere around zero.
Needless to say, the timing for a documentary amid or after all this birthday partying could be optimal. Why did it never happen before?
“He’s not a guy who’ll sit around and make big plans,” says Moverman. “He’s a guy who’ll get on the bus and go perform somewhere else and just keep moving, and that’s kind of his lifestyle. I think whenever ideas of doing a documentary about him or any kind of movie came up, he kind of shrugged. He was living his life. He didn’t need a summation in any way. Now, obviously, he’s no fool, and he’s going to be 90 years old, and he was just ready, I think, emotionally and psychologically — maybe I’m over-reading — to say, ‘OK, let’s see what this looks like.’”
Zimny adds: “And the world was shut down” — handily for them. Nelson had actually agreed to do the project before the pandemic kicked in, and the two filmmakers were still in the research phase when it did. Moving on to actual filming might have taken a little longer if it hadn’t happened that there was quite a good stretch where Nelson was not on the road again.
“He predicted it,” Zimny says, maybe part-seriously, of Nelson’s choice to commit to being filmed. “So we caught him at a place that he wasn’t rolling down the highway and had been at home resting and was eager to talk — and perform music for us, too. So, once again, it was the lack of control and just stumbling into the space where Willie’s available. And not going with too many fixed plans, because we ended up just having some real moments we could never dream of, sitting around playing his songs for us and going into details, that if we were just doing things on the bus, it would’ve been a lot harder to get at.”
Some of the filming with Nelson took place in a space on his compound that bears the sign “Django’s Orchid Lounge” — a combined reference to the venerable Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville and the singer’s adoration of guitarist Django Reinhardt, who Nelson says in the film was “a folk hero to me. No other musician has had a greater influence on me. He was the first who taught me what it means to have your own voice.” Other moments besides the ones filmed at Luck Ranch in Spicewood have Nelson being joined in song with his sons under the swaying palm trees of Maui. “During the breaks he was just hanging out,” says Zimny. “He wouldn’t leave. He’d play us new songs and demos. He’d be engaged in conversation. So it was the big advantage of being in his natural habitat.” The filmmakers don’t pretend they got all the material they could have wanted of Nelson elaborating on every detail of his life during filming, so they also rely on audio from his archival interviews to fill in the gaps.
Many, many famous and not-so-famous friends appear in the film, too — from his sister Bobbie Nelson, since deceased, to collaborators like Dolly Parton — all of them speaking directly into the camera. It was an approach inspired less by other docs than by the interstitial footage in Warren Beatty’s Reds. Zimny admits he had stopped using so-called talking heads on camera in his documentaries years ago, but his way of thinking about it was changed by Moverman, who hadn’t built up such hard-boiled feelings about docs, having primarily written and directed dramatic features (including his Oscar-nominated The Messenger).
“In my documentaries I stopped using on-camera interviews,” Zimny recalls, “and he sat with me and said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘I miss people thinking and talking in a way that they’re not aware of the camera and a crew in front of them.’ That then stemmed to Oren coming up with the idea of: what if they didn’t see us at all? And I think this is an example of the dynamic that I really enjoyed co-directing with him. He came up with an idea we’d build this black box and the person would just only see a camera, and we’d be a voice off-screen. They couldn’t see us acknowledge their questions or goad them on in any way. Suddenly, without that presence of crew and directors looking at you, they forgot and started to talk and reminisce and have the musicality and pauses we were looking for. We ended up with what Oren dubbed ‘witnesses.’ We had interviews with Willie and his family and close bandmates where crew was present, but these other interviews, of songwriters and people in his life, when no one really saw us, we could get a bit of a confessional out of them in a way, without the realities of filmmaking and crew to disturb their train of thought.”
Any favorites among the guests? Moverman mentions being “blown away” by the commentary of Wynton Marsalis. But at the Sundance premiere, he noted, “People loved Brenda Lee. Every time she came on screen, you could feel the room kind of going, ‘It’s Brenda — it’s gonna be funny, it’s gonna be quirky, it’s gonna be interesting.”
The five-hour format is kind of chronological, kind of not. It opens in the 1970s, on Nelson making the album that could be said to have changed everything for him, the concept record Red Headed Stranger, which firmly established that he didn’t have to go the way of the Nashville establishment — after years in which they loved his songwriting but didn’t know what to do with him as a recording artist. But suddenly, it’s veering into his early acquisition of guitars, including his trusty Trigger. It’s a zag that makes sense when you watch it, though it might have been a strange way to kickstart a much shorter doc.
“You could ask a direct question with him that was locked in a certain time period, but Willie could go from childhood to the ’70s to the ’80s and still land back to your question and answer it,” Zimny says. “So that energy we tried to hold on to, and kind of dubbed it Willie World in a strange way. Like, if things felt too linear, we’d let Willie take us off course for a minute and organically try to bring it back.”
What makes Nelson an especially different subject than the icons they’ve individually made films about before?
“He was literally playing us demos for a new album,” Zimny says, “and you just got this constant feeling of an artist alive in creating — whereas other artists I’ve worked with, like Elvis and Johnny Cash, weren’t with me at the time, so there was this finality to the narrative. With Willie, I was sitting around a working artist. And he was inspiring me in the moment. I think Oren and I reflect that in the film. It doesn’t have any sense of putting any period on anything. Willie just goes off into the road, and he’s on the bus heading for another joint.”
“On my side,” adds Moverman, “I’ve worked with living artists” — like Wilson and Dylan — “and not to make it too simple, but with Willie, I think the authenticity of the man throughout his life, and frankly, his sanity and strong mental health, and his sense of fun … that combination is unique. And obviously all of that is built into the longevity of just keeping the performances going. He’s got his own Never Ending Tour, though no one puts that label on it. He just does it, and his goal is to have fun with it. That’s unique for a 90-year-old.”
Promo photos by Pamela Springsteen