Even if viewers know nothing about Townes Van Zandt going into Margaret Brown's Be Here To Love Me, one early shot will tell them a lot. In archival footage from the early '70s, Van Zandt jokes with friends in a slow, gentle drawl, but his attention keeps shifting to his hands. In one there's a whiskey bottle, in the other a Coke can. He slugs from one then the other as he goes about the business of being Townes Van Zandt. Mixing infectious good spirits with a self-destructive willfulness, he's having a good time, but it's clear he's not built to go the distance.
Who was Townes Van Zandt? The greatest songwriter in the world according to Steve Earle ("…and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that"). Born into privilege, Van Zandt learned to experiment with alcohol and glue at an early age, experiments that landed him in a shock treatment-happy mental hospital. By his reckoning, and the reckoning of those who knew him before, Van Zandt never really recovered from the treatment. But he fit in well in the general drug-filled weirdness of '60s Texas and he learned how to write songs like nobody else. He was, in Kris Kristofferson's words, a "songwriter's songwriter." And though he never had more than a cult following, he still turned out hits for Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and others, living in remote cabins and Motel 6s while his songs climbed the charts. He'd clean up then get dirty again, marry three women, father some kids, and then die at the age of 52. Others sang about the kind of life he lived.
Brown's respectful film offers the usual music-doc mix of archival footage, song clips, and talking heads, but with a figure as enigmatic and underreported as Van Zandt, the safe course works well. Friends like Guy Clark and Joe Ely talk about Van Zandt's influence while footage of Van Zandt's orphaned five-year-old daughter singing along to one of his melancholy songs speaks for itself. At times the film seems to imply that with someone to take better care of him, Van Zandt might not have been consumed by his demons, but Van Zandt's own words suggest otherwise. Still fresh-faced, he talks about his life running out before his work and that he'd kind of planned it that way. Asked why he wrote such sad songs, he replies, "Well, you know, I don't think they're all that sad. I have a few that aren't sad, they're hopeless. And the rest aren't sad. They're just the way it goes."