The new Willie Nelson mini-series cuts a winding path through Texas

The directors of 'Willie Nelson & Family,' premiering at Sundance, talk about capturing the artist's home state without cliché.

Willie Nelson performs at Farm Aid in Louisville, Kentucky in 1995.

Willie Nelson performs at Farm Aid in Louisville, Kentucky in 1995.

Timothy D. Easley/Associated Press

As longtime Willie Nelson obsessives, Thom Zimny and Oren Moverman leapt at the opportunity to explore his seven-decade career on screen. But the filmmakers knew any comprehensive study of the Texas music legend's vast output would overwhelm even a project with the size and scope of Willie Nelson & Family, their five-part, 263-minute documentary.

"I mean, the man altogether—compilation, soundtrack, everything—has over 200 records," Moverman says. "We never had a list, going like, 'We have to have these songs in this, or we have to hit these moments musically.' We knew that there was no way."

Produced by Blackbird Presents and Sight Unseen, the documentary marks the first authorized work about the singer-songwriter-guitarist's life and times, made with Nelson’s participation. It will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, screening in Salt Lake City today and in Park City on Tuesday, January 24, then becoming available to stream online through January 29. While the festival's programmers bill it as a "definitive, intimate, and cinematic memoir," the film’s co-directors describe it more simply as "a conversation with Willie Nelson."

Zimny has collaborated with Bruce Springsteen on music videos and documentaries, like Western Stars and Letter to You, across 20 years. Moverman, who directed the Woody Harrelson films The Messenger and Rampart, has been a close friend of Zimny's for almost as long. Discussing the possibility of a Willie Nelson documentary a few years ago with the artist's manager, Mark Rothbaum, the pair aligned early in their belief that listening to Nelson tell his own story would bring audiences closer to his lived experience than any track-by-track accounting. 

"The first time I had that experience of talking to Willie, he covered three different chapters of his life in six minutes," recalls Zimny. "At the same time, you could pull together all the threads and influences he was talking about." The pair wanted their documentary to flow in much the same way. "Instinctually, we both shy away from linear development in structure," Zimny adds. "No one wants to fade up on a photograph of where Willie was born and hear voice-over. That’s not in our language."


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Instead, Willie Nelson & Family opens in modern times, at Nelson's 500-acre Luck ranch in Spicewood, originally built in 1985 as the set for the film version of his 1975 concept album Red Headed Stranger, then preserved and repurposed as Nelson's home roost. "When you’re here, you're in Luck, and when you're not, you're out of Luck," the singer muses, before the documentary segues into him performing "Whiskey River" at the '74 Fourth of July picnic. From there, the series harkens back to '30s Westerns starring Roy Rogers and Gene Autry; it lingers on Rogers singing "Born to the Saddle" in Billy the Kid Returns as Nelson discusses his childhood idols. 

"You can start in Luck in order to talk about a playground that he created for himself, influenced by cowboy movies, which takes you to a place of understanding where he grew up and what he wanted to do," Moverman explains. "You're already in his success, but rather than [traveling] from '75 to present day, [starting in Luck] is about showing a moment of success, an explosion of his freedom and creativity, to tell you the story about how he didn't have that before, on any level."

Freewheeling through time and space, driven by rhyme as much as reason, Willie Nelson & Family arrives at the day Nelson was born in its second hour, well after covering his Abbott, Texas childhood. Other sections introduce his trusty acoustic, Trigger, only to circle back later to detail its near-loss in a '69 Christmas Eve fire. "It's a collage of a man's life," Moverman explains. 

Narrated not just by the 89-year-old Nelson but by archival recordings of him that span every phase of his career, from sit-down interviews to never-before-heard cassettes recorded in the back of a bus, Willie Nelson & Family shows the musician evolving in time, through years of success and struggle both personal and professional. "There's no one particular age of Willie telling this story," Zimny notes.

Adds Moverman: "We never wanted present-day Willie in his late 80s to reflect back on his life and to let that stand as the only testament to the story. As we age and get new perspectives, we mythologize certain things and dismiss others. Things that used to be important to us are no longer important, so they don't come into the conversation… If we left one period of time to tell it, that would have done a disservice to an incredible story."

The filmmakers spent hours interviewing Nelson and family members at Luck, Paia, and Pedernales, also filming in Nashville, Maui, Los Angeles, northern California, and New York to meet musical collaborators, lifelong friends, producers, his booking agent, his driver—all interviewees Moverman took to calling "witnesses" to Willie's life. 

Dolly Parton, Roseanne Cash, Booker T. Jones, Don Was, and dozens more celebrities appear, as do Willie-ologists and Texas citizens. "We were always searching for someone who knew of the church, or knew of the town, or knew who was there when Willie was a kid," Zimny says. "Having their voice be present, to give us a detail that can unpack a history and give another point of view, means that you might know a fact about Willie Nelson, but you’re not relying on that being the sole checkpoint of that chapter."

Given Nelson's centrality to Texas, capturing the Lone Star state in all its glory was paramount. "We both came to that space without any preconceptions," reflects Zimny. "We were welcomed, and we wanted to honor the light, landscape, people, and history." Scrutinizing Nelson's descriptions of it, the directors set out to film Texas without cliché, which they say came naturally in following Nelson's lead.

"Willie is someone who dismantles stereotypes, who destroys preconceived notions," Moverman says. "You could go down the list: his Native American heritage, his Texas upbringing. He grew up in the depression in the '30s, in Abbott, Texas. It's easy for anyone who knows a little bit to say, 'Oh, he's that kind of person, who grew up with these influences, in this culture, with these kinds of people.' He defies all of this."

Researching Nelson's decades in Texas, the filmmakers also explored the history of music in the state, from polka (which Nelson played in West, Texas) to Romani-Belgian jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt (whom Nelson describes as his folk hero). "Listening to those different influences on the development of music that was ultimately going to contribute to who he became," Moverman says, "was thrilling."

Willie Nelson & Family was the logical choice for a title. "It really comes from him," Moverman says. "His personal story—that we won't reveal too much of, for purposes of people discovering it—is rooted in a family situation that informs the rest of his life. But, for Willie, family is blood relatives, family is musicians, family is friends, family is fans, family is record-buyers, and—the big secret to all of this, which we will reveal—is that 'Willie Nelson and family' is 'Willie Nelson and audience.' Everyone who's watching this, as far as he’s concerned, is now family." 

Willie Nelson and Family streams through the Sundance Film Festival from January 24 through January 29.

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