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.
Then Episode 3, unsurprisingly, digs into Nelson’s favorite pastime. While the description for the documentary promises insight into his marijuana advocacy, we don’t get to see too much of that, instead spending more time with road stories, memories of Nelson’s relationship with and rules for drugs when touring, and general anecdotes. This does tie into his journey with spirituality and mysticism, offering an interesting contrast to his lifelong love for hymns like “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
Soul Meetings: Episode 4 is far and away the highlight of the set: Here, we spend time hearing about some of Nelson’s strongest collaborations, beginning with a “soul meeting” with musician and producer Booker T. Jones. A chance encounter in Malibu spurred a collaboration between the two — it’s emphasized here that prior to now, a Black producer had never produced a country record, but it was this partnership that led to Starlight, an album of American standards no one expected from an outlaw like Willie.
It’s a tender and poignant album, and jazz icon Wynton Marsalis makes an appearance to comment that it’s the kind of record that demonstrates the “roots of American music are integrated,” much like when Nelson’s dear friend Ray Charles would spend time playing country music.
By the time the documentary wraps, these are the moments that stick, and the stories we wish we could have spent more time reveling in. Episode 4 goes on to touch on Nelson’s collaborations with Enrique Iglesias and his foray into filmmaking, and the footage of Nelson on set with Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, and Johnny Cash feels like a tease. It’s these vignettes where the person of Willie Nelson, rather than the icon we’ve all been lucky enough to experience as a cultural mainstay for decades, feels fully realized.
Similarly, Nelson’s relationship with his sister Bobbie, a very gifted pianist, is another highlight. More than one interview touches on the way she has acted as his anchor and guiding light throughout his life. In times when he felt adrift, personally or musically, his sister was there to re-center him. When the IRS collected Nelson’s belongings, Bobbie ensured that their beloved piano was safe.
In this way, the title of the series is two-fold — while Willie Nelson & Family was the name of the star’s longtime band, Bobbie feels like one of the heroes of the story when the final credits roll.
The Verdict: This series will be an absolute gift for people who adore Willie Nelson — folks who have listened to his music for decades and crave insight into the time in between his public-facing moments will enjoy Willie Nelson & Family most. (Maybe this demographic was even Zimny and Moverman’s intended audience.)
Regardless, whether you’re going into the documentary an expert or completely new to Nelson and his work, the takeaway is the same — we could all do with the reminder of his favorite refrain. “Don’t be an asshole. Don’t be an asshole. Don’t be a goddamn asshole.”
Where to Watch: Willie Nelson & Family premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Distribution plans are unknown at this time.