'Heartworn Highways Revisited': Film Review

Courtesy of Film Society of Lincoln Center
A group portrait of strong talents that wears its influences well.

A new generation provides the alternative to Nashville's mainstream.

Though it was hardly a commercial landmark, and was in fact James Szalapski's only film as director (before a productive career in TV and other behind-the-scenes roles), 1976's Heartworn Highways remains a treasure for lovers of non-mainstream roots music, hanging out with giants Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark (not to mention then-unknowns like Rodney Crowell) in an intimate, social setting. Though he is unconnected to Szalapski's project (producer Graham Leader is the common thread), director Wayne Price picks up the baton gracefully in Heartworn Highways Revisited, another hangout film in which rising stars strum alongside songwriters who have yet to get their due. Sure to send viewers out in search of recordings by artists new to them, the doc honors its predecessor in more ways than one and should have a strong life on video.

Introductory titles about the original film ignore its Austin component, implying it was shot entirely in Nashville. The little cheat suits this new chapter, which finds plenty of talent centered, whether they live there or not, in Music City. (Any comment on Austin's music scene, still fertile but wounded by a skyrocketing cost of living, would muddy the water.) Price also perpetuates a problematic label, calling Heartworn a look at "Outlaw Country" and conferring that term on his own subjects. The moniker doesn't suit these performers, just as it didn't the "alt-country" stars of the 1990s who inhabited similar genre-uncertain territory. (And who were too spread out, in geography and style, for someone to make a Heartworn chapter about them.)

But as with the first film, the point is not a comprehensive picture of a musical scene — if the 1976 entry were that, the absence of Willie Nelson and others would be impermissible — but an evocation of a social one whose common thread is a love of great songs.

This time, the most famous participant is probably John McCauley, of the not-at-all-country band Deer Tick, who relocated to Nashville during filming to start a new family. McCauley is seen here in several settings, from raucous shows in front of paying crowds to studio sessions recording new material. But in general the filmmakers capture songs in much less formal venues: The husband-and-wife duo Shovels & Rope picks something out in the backyard of their rural home; Jonny Fritz plays while taking a break from scraping paint off his fixer-upper house; others swap songs hootenanny-style while sitting around a bonfire. (Frustratingly, the doc sticks with the original's decision not to identify the musicians we meet as we go.)

Only rarely do we see more than two people playing together, and the spare acoustic presentation suggests these songwriters are more alike than perhaps they really are. Their strongest connection may be that (as Bobby Bare Jr. claims) unlike in the '70s, when a megastar like Johnny Cash would help an unconventional tunesmith like Kris Kristofferson by recording one of his songs, none of these writers can expect to be covered by a Kenny Chesney.

As it moves easily from backyard to kitchen to old-school Nashville watering hole, the doc encounters some of the first film's stars. (Steve Earle is notably absent, given the inclusion of his son Justin Townes Earle.) Most notable is a visit to Guy Clark's home, where he rolls cigarettes and talks about the birth of songs like "L.A. Freeway" and "My Favorite Picture of You." Moving performance clips from the original connect us to patron saint Van Zandt, and late in the doc we get a big reunion, with old-timers and upstarts sharing food, stories and songs. Here and elsewhere, critical viewers will wonder how much of the collegiality is an invention of the producers. But few who appreciate Americana's fringe will resent the opportunity to encounter all these artists in one easygoing, song-stuffed place.

Production company: Gigantic Pictures

Director-Director of photography: Wayne Price

Producers: Brian Devine, Graham Leader, Wayne Price

Editors: Kelly Kendrick, Wayne Price

No rating, 89 minutes

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