The late, great Townes van Zandt lived the kind of sensationalistic life that makes for a documentarian's wet dream: a traumatic stay in an institution complete with shock treatments; alcohol and substance-abuse problems that took on legendary proportions; and decades spent unjustly languishing in the shadows of the limelight. But while Margaret Brown's movie on the '70s cult musician doesn't skimp on dishing some Behind the Music dirt, the doc keeps the focus on Van Zandt's ability to craft achingly beautiful tunes in his sleep (sometimes literally). Even though it's a portrait of an artist, Be Here to Love Me serves as a larger testament to the kind of burdensome talent that leaves plenty of admirers, several broken relationships and lots of psychic wreckage in its wake.
No less a figure than Kris Kristofferson calls Van Zandt "the songwriter's songwriter," and other prominent musical statesmen, such as Steve Earle and Willie Nelson, pay the ramblin' Texas troubadour appropriately fawning tribute in talking-head spots. Interviews from Van Zandt's wives and children fill in the blanks as to how his reckless lifestyle fueled his music and ruined his career potential, but it's the film's performance footage that tells who Van Zandt really was. When the lanky singer uses his twang-blues tenor and poetic lyrics to paint a downbeat American picture, the film wisely lets the tunes do the talking. Everything you need to know about him is right there. (Opens Fri; Angelika.)