This review is part of our coverage of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
The Pitch: Willie Nelson is an American original. Widely regarded as one of the greatest singer-songwriters in the history of popular music, the redheaded stranger himself has lived a life that poises him as an incredible documentary subject. The five-part series, which premiered Friday, January 20th at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, positions itself as the “first and only documentary” about his life, allowing him to tell his story in his own words.
Willie Nelson & Family assembles an impressive collection of folks around him to do so. This includes fellow musicians like Dolly Parton, Bill Anderson, Brenda Lee, Jeannie Seely, Kenny Chesney, Margo Price, and Wynton Marsalis, along with historian Michael Gray and writer John Spong. The documentary is rounded out by members of Willie’s family, his band referenced in the title, and various longtime team members and confidantes.
On the Road: Directors Thom Zimny and Oren Moverman offer two very stacked resumes: Zimny is a Grammy and Emmy-winning artist who has directed documentaries about Bruce Springsteen, Elvis, and Johnny Cash. He clearly knows how to explore the story of a musician like Nelson, especially when joining forces with an Academy Award-nominated and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker like Moverman. The snags in Willie Nelson & Family don’t so much feel like a case of too many cooks in the kitchen as they feel like proof of the importance of editing: The two minds behind the documentary certainly gathered a wealth of testimonies, footage, photos, and stories, but don’t seem willing to part with any of it.
Willie Nelson & Family might have worked better as a film, or could’ve been trimmed and condensed to three parts. Overall, the five episodes feel unfortunately lacking in focus; while a meandering, non-linear structure (or lack thereof) certainly feels appropriate for the subject of the documentary, it doesn’t make for the most engaging material for the viewer.
Roll Me Up and Smoke Me: We begin with plenty of time spent in Nelson’s early life and adventurous teen years, hopping trains, causing trouble, and worrying about the state of his soul throughout. (Try not to laugh at his frank delivery of “We only had three things to do: fight, fuck, and throw rocks.”) Some of the threads in the first two episodes tie into the stories that eventually became Nelson’s iconic Redheaded Stranger album, but without a central narrative, jumping between his failed time in the Air Force, marital and financial strains, and songwriting struggles feels erratic.