Harry Connick Jr., Willie Nelson Bring Christmas to SXSW in 'When Angels Sing'

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From left: Connie Britton, Harry Connick Jr., Chandler Canterbury and Willie Nelson star in "When Angels Sing," which premiered March 10 in Austin, the city where it was filmed

The biggest collection of Texas musicians onscreen is in, of all things, a Christmas movie.

Set in Austin and starring Harry Connick Jr., the cast of "When Angels Sing" includes Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Kris Kristofferson, Sarah Hickman, Ray Benson, Marcia Ball, the Trishas, Guy Forsyth, Joel Guzman, Dale Watson, Kat Edmonson, Miss Lavelle , Eloise DeJoria and others.

"We already had a great start with Harry and Willie and Kris, so I told our casting director 'let's put everybody who's a musician in the movie'," says director Tim McCanlies. "I've never worried about musicians as actors. They are just natural actors and I don't know what it it is -- they use the same part of the brain, but differently somehow? I just love working with these naturals."

Connick, the out-of-towner who also is the only musician to not perform onscreen, said he noticed more than ever during this film how differently singers deliver a line than actors. He couldn't quite put his finger on it.

"We're used to telling the whole arc of a story in a lyric, so when you hear someone like Willie, there's a different rhythm," Connick says. "Kris can mess up a line better than I can deliver one. I think it's about patience. I have to think about it."

Despite having a script with no music mentioned, McCanlies saw a unique opportunity to get his cast singing Christmas carols, with Nelson performing in a church. To ensure no issues down the road, music supervisor Roanna Gillespie drew up a list of songs in the public domain and had the artists select ones they wanted to perform and gave them the option of using one of their own tunes. Kristofferson sings Nelson's "Pretty Paper," for example; Nelson and Connick co-wrote and duet on a song written for the film over the closing credits.

Sunday's premiere was the launch of the film, which does not yet have distribution. Producers Elizabeth Avellán and Shannon McIntosh say they are deep into discussions for not only distribution of the Christmas-themed film, but also for a soundtrack. McCanlies had the foresight to shoot full performances of every song, so a holiday album is highly realistic.

That approach impressed Connick who told McCanlies during our interview "it was refreshing to see how you edited. I found it captivating when Kris was singing 'Pretty Papers' and Lyle and how the camera just stays on them."

"I was on the set a lot. because I was in so many scenes," Connick notes. "Watching the church scene, hearing Lyle sing. It was an amazing experience to check out these people and seeing Willie -- I was starstruck."