Without Getting Killed or Caught
Directed by Tamara Saviano and Paul Whitfield
Slow Uvalde Films
It’s hard to say who exactly the headliner is in Without Getting Killed or Caught, the new documentary that chronicles the life of the beloved late Texas wordsmith Guy Clark. Co-directed by Tamara Saviano and her husband, Paul Whitfield, and sharing a title with Saviano’s 2016 Clark biography, the film is equal parts Guy, his wife Susanna Clark, an artist and songwriter herself, and their complex relationship with his best friend and her “soulmate,” gifted and self-destructive songwriter Townes Van Zandt. If that relationship sounds like a recipe for trouble, the film makes clear it was, from the get-go right up until the bitter end. Thankfully it was also a recipe for art, passion, pain, competition and creativity.
The film’s title comes from a lyric in one of Clark’s earlier compositions, “L.A. Freeway,” a song first recorded by Jerry Jeff Walker before later being included on Clark’s 1975 debut RCA album, Old No. 1. That album, now viewed as a Texas music masterpiece, wasn’t a commercial success at the time, Clark being dropped by RCA after only two albums. The film highlights that most everything in Clark’s life was complex and challenging, whether artistic or romantic.
Already a divorced father, Clark first met Susanna while in a romantic relationship with her sister Bunny, but the two really cemented their relationship while grieving together over Bunny’s suicide. Van Zandt, an early Houston musical cohort of Guy’s, was intertwined in their relationship from the beginning. The film, fittingly, is somewhat circumspect about the details of the opaque nature of their relationships. While the words “love triangle” may spring, that descriptor doesn’t capture its passion and complexity. As Clark himself says late in the film, “It’s true it was a mythical love story. I wouldn’t disabuse anyone of that. It’s just … you have to be there to get it.” Truthfully, it’s doubtful that even being there would have been enough.
Susanna was a talented artistic force on her own, and by choosing to give her such a prominent voice in the film, Saviano gives Susanna her due. Her paintings graced several famous album covers: Willie Nelson’s Stardust, Emmylou Harris’ Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town and Clark’s Old No. 1. But she was also a songwriter able to craft songs that were hits for other artists, surely igniting small pangs of jealousy in Guy. As much as, or more than, Guy himself, she was a mentor and inspiration to the many aspiring and established musicians who gravitated to the Clarks’ Nashville home. As Steve Earle recounts in the film, “We learned to write songs from Guy and Townes, but we learned how to carry ourselves as artists from Susanna.”
Ultimately, after five albums and years of artistic success and commercial failure, Guy Clark gave up chasing hits on the big labels, instead settling into acoustic folk with smaller labels. The market finally caught up, allowing him to become a commercially successful performer of Americana music later in his career. It’s the music and performances of this later period that get the majority of musical time in the film, with earlier performance footage from the Clark household — taken from the 1976 documentary Heartworn Highways — making only a brief but welcome appearance.
In the meantime, Van Zandt, whose story has been documented in the 2004 film Be Here to Love Me, slowly killed himself through booze and drugs. Sadly, it’s that Townes, in long slow decline from years of mental illness and self-abuse, which we mostly see in this film. After his 1997 passing, Susanna surrendered to grief, spending her final 15 years bedridden, finally dying in 2012. Clark released his final album, My Favorite Picture of You, the following year — the cover features a grizzled Clark holding his favorite picture of Susanna for the camera — before passing in 2016 after long and varied health issues. The intertwined and tangled connections of the three were clearly key to Guy’s story right up until his passing.
Saviano had already spent years with the Clarks by the time of Susanna’s death, and the very next day Guy handed over to her boxes containing his wife’s written journals and secret audio diaries. Asked if he’d read or listened to them, his response was, “No, but whatever is in there is Susanna’s truth, and you’re welcome to it.” And it’s this material (the tape recordings are a character all unto themselves in the film, while written journal entries are narrated by actress Sissy Spacek) that allows Saviano to freshly convey Susanna’s story in her own words.
A fascinating and convoluted artistic tale worthy of telling — and, sadly, one with no happy endings — the film’s presentation of this trio’s tale can at times feel equally convoluted. Saviano and crew try to cover a lot of ground in telling Guy’s life story alongside the story of Susanna and their relationships with Townes, by necessity leaving out or barely touching on certain elements such as Clark’s endeavors as a luthier and his relationships with and impact on younger artists in his later years.
It also seems the filmmakers struggled with finding the right approach to presenting the vast available material, choosing to employ a wide range of techniques and approaches in the film. Because of this scattershot approach, the film never settles into a stylistic or narrative groove. Opening with a filmed recreation of the couple’s VW bus hitting the road to Nashville, there are an abundance of first-person, talking-head interviews from the likes of Rodney Crowell, Vince Gill, Steve Earle, Terry Allen and Verlon Thompson, as well as assorted live musical performances, old photos and videos, passages of Susanna’s diaries pictured and narrated, clips of Susanna’s cassette recordings (accompanied by a shot of a cassette player), and the occasional animated sequences, which feel out of place with the rest of the film.
Despite the film’s flaws, it’s a welcome contribution to the stories of Guy, Susanna and Townes and the art they created and shepherded.
[Top photo: (l-r) Guy Clark, Susanna Clark, Susan Walker and Jerry Jeff Walker.]