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AUSTIN — An onslaught of affectionate praise, King of Luck offers Willie Nelson the chance to hear his friends gush about him without having to go to the trouble of dying and hovering above the funeral. Its sole point of restraint is the color-free photography
What it offers other viewers is harder to nail down. Though very enjoyable for the already-converted, Billy Bob Thornton‘s doc offers little biographical content and startlingly little facetime with the man himself. Meanwhile viewers not convinced of Nelson’s greatness will find themselves more or less ignored. The film will play well on small screens, but lacks the scope to justify any sustained theatrical run.
Following a logical if uninspired structure, Thornton works through the sectors of the Willieverse, introducing us, in order, to his crew, band, family and friends. Each chapter has its charms, with the first two providing the most entertaining evidence of the performer’s oft-cited loyalty: One member of the band complains he’s been “the new guy” since signing on in 1984, and most of the white-bearded, beer-bellied veterans we meet can claim over three decades of employment on a tour that never ends.
(Most offer a tale of their jobs’ humble origins, like the merchandizing guy who, 37 years ago, was so happy to be getting in to shows for free and drinking with the band that he counted it profit “if we sold four, five shirts a night.”)
What the movie lacks in psychological probing or pre-fame anecdote it makes up for in vintage photographs, offering views of the star through many fashion phases (Fauntleroy haircuts, skimpy athletic shorts) others would try to wipe from the public record.
Happily, some of that fashion-crime evidence is accompanied by performance footage — as in a fun montage splicing multiple versions of the brilliant tune “Hello Walls” as performed by Nelson and the singer who made it a hit, Faron Young. Young’s recollection of the kiss Nelson gave him when the royalty checks for that one started arriving provides the biggest of the film’s many laughs.
As we hear from associates ranging from actor Owen Wilson to Texas Longhorns coach Darrell Royal, we quickly realize that nothing remotely critical will be said about Willie here. (The closest the movie gets is when son Micah admits Dad’s long absences were hard on his mom.) Still it’s disappointing to see so few of Nelson’s peers reaching beyond mere anecdotes to try and explain what about his song-craft and musicianship makes him great.
Kris Kristofferson comes closest on that front, and a couple of the longer performance scenes (like recent renditions of “Always on My Mind” and “Still is Still Moving to Me”) allow us to ponder it first-hand — watching a singer who routinely explores new ways of delivering decades-old lyrics, never minding if the path to a fresh new phrasing involves a bit of messy delivery beforehand.
In King of Luck, Thornton has the casual and good-humored part of that equation down. But he never seems to share Nelson’s goal of surprising fans, and himself, along the way.
Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival, Headliners section
Production Company: Meat House Productions
Director: Billy Bob Thornton
Producers: Harve Cook, Thomas Mayhue, Kristin Scott
Executive producers: Michael Minkler, Mark Rothbaum, Bill Gerber
Directors of photography: Afshin Shahidi, Aymeric Montouchet
Music: The Cods
Editor: Carol Martori
No rating, 80 minutes
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