Culture / Entertainment

Willie Nelson Truths Revealed With His 90th Birthday Beckoning — This True Texas Icon Gets a Five Part Documentary

Texas Plays a Starring Role Too

BY // 04.04.23

Texas musical icon Willie Nelson, who will celebrate his 90th birthday on April 29th, is the subject of a new five-part documentary that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Willie Nelson & Family is an honest, emotional, sometimes heartbreaking, and ultimately affectionate portrait of one of the worlds most extraordinary and prolific musicians.

The documentary opens with Nelson at the set created on the singers ranch outside of Austin for the 1986 motion picture Red Headed Stranger (starring Nelson and Morgan Fairchild), based on Nelsons multi-platinum concept album by the same name. Nelson calls his ranch Luck Ranch.

“When you are here you are in Luck, and when you are not here you are out of Luck, he jokes.

The documentary quickly switches to a live performance of Nelson singing Whiskey River to a wildly cheering crowd. Even if you dont stand up and start dancing from the comfort of your TV room, you know you are in for something special.  

Directors Thom Zimny (who also directed Netflixs Springsteen on Broadway) and Oren Moverman (producer of the Emmy-winning HBO documentary Bad Education) faced both challenges and opportunities in filming the first Willie Nelson documentary made with the full cooperation of the singers family and friends.

What is left to be said about Willie Nelson? How can you condense a 70-year career with such astonishing highs and lows into five hours?  

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Zimny and Moverman skillfully present Nelsons life and career as a collage rather than a chronology. This doc does not follow a specific timeline. Instead, it is a series of stories that are skillfully knitted together to provide a well-rounded view of the man, his spirituality, and his love for family (which includes his fans to Nelson)and how it has evolved over his career. The documentary, like Nelson himself, has a cadence that moves from guitar technique to his battles with alcohol to his relationships with Presidents Clinton and Carter. All in the space of minutes.

The directors of Willie Nelson & Family also benefited from the COVID pandemic, which forced Nelson to suspend touring and allowed Zimny and Moverman extended one-on-one time with him. It also allowed them to conduct more than 80 other interviews and do a deep dive into archival material.

Willie Nelson
Willie Nelson still brings it as a performer, health scares be damned. Here he is during his 2017 Houston Rodeo concert.

Filmed in Maui, California, Nashville, and at Nelsons ranch outside of Austin, the film features in-depth interviews with Nelson and his family while fellow musicians, producers, and friends are filmed alone against a black backdrop. They stare into the camera, with the interviewers heard but not seen, and reflect on Willie.  

Included in the star-studded group of collaborators are legendary country singer Brenda Lee, jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalissoul pioneer Booker T. Jones and country music stars Roseanne Cash and Dolly Parton. Parton, who has known Willie Nelson for more than 50 years, laughingly describes him back in the early days as “dorky looking (pause) in a professional sort of way, of course.

Willie Nelson, The Early Years

The first episode of this five-hour extravaganza features the bond Willie and his sister Bobbie Nelson form after being abandoned by their parents and left to their grandparents to raise. At age six, Willie receives his first guitar.

“The guitar had a voice,” Nelson says. “The box wood sings. It was near to my heart and became a part of me.

The scene shifts to him and his sons Lukas and Micah singing “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” under palm trees. With such an emotional punch, I wondered how the filmmakers could top that.

Not to worry. Because of the documentary’s almost stream-of-consciousness approach, the succeeding episodes continue to enchant and engage the viewer with early music you may not have heard before. And new anecdotes about this complex and extraordinary man. Willie Nelson & Family viewers are delightfully surprised because of the directors freewheeling nonlinear treatment of their subject.

It is hard to imagine today, but success came late in life to Willie Nelson. The second episode of Willie Nelson & Family describes his childhood in Abbott Texas and his early start in Nashville. Nelson was so discouraged by the early rejections that he tried to commit suicide. Even after he achieved artistic and financial success, he experienced heartache (some self-inflicted). Willie divorced three times, suffered through the suicide of his eldest son, and watched his assets get seized to satisfy an IRS lien. Former University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal is credited with rescuing Nelson’s beloved guitar named Trigger during this period.

In the documentary, Nelson vulnerably addresses his mistakes and tragedies — and the importance of his spirituality.

Willie Nelson with President Clinton
Willie Nelson visiting President Bill Clinton at the White House in the early 1990s.

All of Nelson’s kids have a voice in Willie Nelson & Family as do his ex-wives and his wife of 30 years Annie (mother to Lucas and Micah). His sister Bobbie, who accompanied him on the piano in church as a child and then on stage for the last 50 years, is also heavily featured.

But perhaps the unsung star of the entire five-part documentary is Texas itself. The filmmakers stated at the premiere and in interviews that capturing the Lone Star State, its people, and musical history is pivotal in telling Willie Nelson’s story. And indeed, Nelson did not achieve fame until after he returned to Texas from Nashville. The film movingly shows Texas hippies and country music fans finding commonality in Nelson’s music.

Willie Nelson and Friends 

Willie Nelson fans will be moved not just by the songs and the storybut by his collaborations. One of Ray Charles last performances came in serenading Nelson on his 70th birthday. Other goosebump moments include Nelson with Johnny Cash and the famed Highwaymen, Julio Iglesias, and Leon Russell. There is also a sacred moment with his sister Bobbie as they played hymns at the Abbott Texas church in which they grew up.

Nelsons spirituality and wisdom gained through lifes struggles is an overriding theme of the documentary, as are treating people kindly and avoiding negativity, which Nelson says will kill you. The Nelson Familys motto is: Dont be an asshole. Dont be an asshole. Dont be a goddamn asshole.  

Willie Nelson fans will relish every minute of this 234-minute-long documentary. While distribution rights are still being worked out, it’d be a surprise to not have the chance to see this epic doc later this year. In the meantime, fans can celebrate Nelson winning a Best Country Album Grammy for A Beautiful Time and check out his newest album, I Don’t Know a Thing about Love, which came out last month. Of course, there is also a mega 90th birthday concert planned for the Hollywood Bowl on April 29 and 30. 

It’s Willie Nelson. Everything has to be bigger.

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