Willie Nelson, who turns 90 in April, is the subject of a five-part documentary debuting this week at the Sundance Film Festival. “Willie Nelson & Family” is an engrossing, unflinching and ultimately loving portrait of a cultural icon who has lived “a rich life of beauty and struggle,” says Thom Zimny, who shares director credits with Oren Moverman.
The film captures the complexity of Nelson, who dreamed in his boyhood of becoming a singing cowboy like his movie idols, and became one of the most acclaimed songwriters and singers of his age, as well as a celebrated actor, author and activist, living through decades of tragedies and triumphs.
“Dad has been homeless, he’s had his house burned down, he’s been through four marriages, he’s been up and down, he’s been broke, he fought the IRS, he’s lost a child… that’s what makes him inspiring to me, his resilience in the face of adversity,” says Lukas Nelson in the film.
Nelson is “one of the great musical artists of all time,” says producer Don Was.
To frame Nelson’s saga, the filmmakers were in Luck – literally. The documentary opens on the Luck Ranch, the Western town built on the singer’s property outside of Austin as a movie set for Nelson’s film of his landmark 1975 album The Red Headed Stranger. The site has been used in recent years for the Luck Reunion festival and other concerts.
A weather-beaten, white, wooden chapel stands at the entrance to Luck — it’s seen on the cover of Nelson’s most recent, Grammy Award-nominated album A Beautiful Time — and the singer’s Zen-like spirit is a recurring theme of Willie Nelson & Family. It is reflected in the entrancing, often impressionistic visual style of the film. But the five episodes also are packed with the energy of a Willie Nelson concert, beginning with a Fourth of July 1974 performance of “Whiskey River,” the song Nelson has used to open every one of his shows in recent memory.
The directors, Moverman and Zimny, are longtime friends — but this is their first collaboration. Moverman, credited on more than 30 independent films over the past two decades, is the co-founder (alongside Julia Lebedev and Eddie Vaisman) of Sight Unseen Pictures, an independent production and financing company. He co-wrote the screenplay of the Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy and won an Emmy Award, as part of Sight Unseen, as producer of the 2019 school scandal film Bad Education on HBO. Zimny, who has directed documentaries on Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, is best known for his long association with Bruce Springsteen, including his Emmy-winning work as director of Springsteen on Broadway for Netflix.
The team behind the film also includes associate producers Adrienne Gerard and Rob Rauffer, editors Brett Banks and Chris Iverse, cinematographer Bobby Bukowski and composer Ron Aniello. The producer of Springsteen’s albums for the past decade, Aniello creates a masterful sonic backdrop for the film, which complements Nelson’s own music.
“I related to Willie’s story on many levels,” says Zimny, who was joined by Moverman for a recent Zoom interview with Billboard. Nelson’s music “is very cinematic” and his story tells of “a person who connected to music deeply and also had a rich life of beauty and struggle. With both Oren and I, what was really important was that we got the trust and support of the family to sit down with Willie and really explore a lot of those different chapters.”
The pandemic shaped the film, Moverman explains. “The shutdown allowed us to go through the history and do our own deep dive. Because we know how beloved Willie is and how much people care about him, we felt a responsibility to go into the real life. And the real life involves some dark stuff. It’s not just the image of how much fun Willie is. But there were real struggles and real dramatic moments in his life. And to our great privilege, Willie was really open about that. He and his wife Annie just opened the house to us and said, `Let’s talk.’”
Notably, the pandemic also forced the always-touring singer off the road, increasing his availability for this project. The filmmakers acknowledge the deep trust and cooperation they also received from Nelson’s longtime manager Mark Rothbaum – while also noting they had full editorial control over the documentary.
Nelson speaks throughout the film, in both current and archival interviews (with aging audio often supplemented by helpful subtitles). But the filmmakers also present extraordinary insights from numerous family members, friends and fellow artists, including Dolly Parton, Kenny Chesney, Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, Nelson’s longtime bandmate and harmonica player Mickey Raphael and more. They found a technique to elicit compelling commentary. Most interviewees sit alone in darkness, strikingly lit, facing a camera, with interviewers heard but not seen.
“So you end up with reflections, not sound bites,” says Zimny. “We refer to these as the witnesses in Willie’s life,” adds Moverman.
The witnesses attest to Nelson’s years of financial struggle in Nashville, as the father of three young children, when he contemplated suicide. Yet this was the era in which also he penned three of his greatest classics, “Crazy,” “Night Life” and “Funny How Time Slips Away,” one after the other.
Nelson and others describe the December night, just before Christmas, when the singer was drinking with buddies in Nashville and received a phone call reporting that his ranch in Ridgetop, Tenn. was on fire. (Nelson recalls dodging flames to rescue both his guitar, “Trigger,” and a stash of choice marijuana, before the house burned to the ground). While his family escaped injury, the fire led Nelson to abandon Nashville — where he’d recorded 18 albums without significant success — and return to his native Texas.
Back home in Texas in 1975, with a new Columbia Records contract that gave him full creative control, Nelson recorded Red Headed Stranger. The concept album sounded like nothing coming out of Nashville at the time. It hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart and included Nelson’s version of Roy Acuff’s 1947 hit “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain.” The track topped the Hot Country Songs chart—Nelson’s first No. 1 as a performer — and reached No. 21 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Although Willie Nelson & Family touches upon almost every significant point in the singer’s career, it is less a linear, chronological story than an excursion into “Willie World,” say the filmmakers. “You have to sort of be in that flow of Willie World where you’re sort of connecting these dots and then all of a sudden you arrive at something that’s very, very meaningful,” says Moverman.
One of those meaningful moments is Nelson’s creation in 1985 of Farm Aid, the all-star benefit concert first staged in reaction to the foreclosure crisis throwing family farmers off their land. Nearly four decades later, Nelson’s commitment to Farm Aid and family farmers continues.
That sustained commitment “means everything,” says Moverman. “We try to put it in perspective and say, well, he grew up in a farming community, with a sense of what being a farmer living off the land is. But it’s so much more than that. Annie says it in the movie. I mean, he’s just for the underdog and for the people who are suffering.
“There’s a moment that we kept in the film where he says, `You know, I know my responsibilities. You know your responsibilities. Like, nobody has to tell us.’ And if you can do something [to help others], as he says, f–king do it. And it’s just as simple and complex as that.”
Annie Nelson, the singer’s wife and mother of Lukas and Micah, is one of two women with an essential presence in Willie Nelson & Family. The other is Nelson’s older sister Bobbie, whom the filmmakers interviewed before her death in March 2022.
“There’s no telling Willie’s story without Bobbie,” says Moverman. “She was a very modest person and I think many people actually who are Willie fans didn’t know that his sister was playing piano with him. But once they’re exposed to this story and understand the relationship… it’s beyond inspiring.”
In one of the most poignant scenes in the film, Willie and Bobbie Nelson return to their hometown of Abbott, Texas, where they were raised by their grandparents, the couple “who gave us two gifts that saved our lives— love and music,” says Nelson. They enter the church in Abbott to sing gospel songs together “without anyone saying this could be the last time,” says Moverman.
The passing of Bobbie Nelson begs the hard question: did the filmmakers fear the loss of Willie Nelson during the pandemic?
“Not really,” says Moverman. “He makes you feel like he’s gonna live forever.”
Says Zimny: “My reflection on the time with Willie was [the challenge] to keep up with him. We were filming interviews and Willie wanted to stop and play us some new tracks he had just recorded for an album. We stepped into his universe. There wasn’t any feeling of anything coming to a close or an end.” (On March 3, Nelson will release his latest album, I Don’t Know a Thing About Love, featuring ten new studio performances of songs by Harlan Howard).
“The only time we felt any kind of danger around Willie,” adds Moverman, “was when he asked us very innocently if we wanted to play dominoes for money.”
As Willie Nelson & Family debuts at Sundance, Zimny says his wish is that “the viewer just learns about the power of song with Willie, the healing qualities of music and can step into a space to relate to his journey. That’s what you just hope for.”
For Moverman, telling Nelson’s story now is more important than ever. “This is arguably the last consensus artist we have in this country,” he says. “This is the guy that everybody loves. We recently went to two separate concerts, but had the same experience where we looked around and, as Shelby Lynne says in the movie, there’s one of everybody. People come out to see him, they have fun, they see each other’s humanity.
“Willie Nelson is someone who not only has covered every genre of music, but also has really united people from all sides of the political conflict. All sides of every conflict,” Moverman continues. “So, yeah, we need him. We need his healing.”