James Clay // Film Critic
Not rated, 93 minutes.
Director: James Szalapski
Cast: Townes Van Zandt, Charlie Daniels, Steve Earle, and David Allen Coe
Outlaw country takes on many different shapes and meanings for the stars of the long-lost documentary HEARTWORN HIGHWAYS by director James Szalapski.
The men who made up this movement, including Townes Van Zandt, the controversial David Allen Coe (to put it diplomatically), a young Steve Earle, Charlie Daniels, weren’t into labels or normalizing the status quo of their industry. These singer/songwriters captured a fleeting moment for a version of Texas that no longer exists. Most of these figures are dead, or their career moments have passed, but their spirit lives on in creative spaces today. The likes of Ethan Hawke, Matthew McConaughey, and T-Bone Burnett are creatively influenced by the sounds and essence created in the mid-70s.
This loose and lyrical look at a bygone era is about listening and feeling rather than making sense of the sounds. Being released by Kino Marquee in virtual cinemas across the country, the documentary gets the chance to make its mark on a modern audience.
We are looking at the slow-moving days where time hardly existed and treated every day like it was potentially the last. Through 16mm footage turned into gorgeous high definition imagery depicts live performances, recording sessions, and dive bar, viewers are transported to 1976 in a way that’s free from plot contrivances or drama. Szalapski’s camera is pointed directly at the center of the action, seemingly knowing exactly how to seize a moment.
This is a documentary about looking up as time is passing the baton from one generation of country artists to the next wave. There was undoubtedly problematic behavior lurking underneath the surface, but Szalapski wasn’t interested in exposing anything other than a profound love for this lifestyle. This is a version of Texas that shies away from red politics and is more so focused on connecting with humanity.
Although HEARTWORN HIGHWAYS was largely shot in Nashville, it embodies everything that modern filmmaker Richard Linklater is going for in his odes to Texas DAZED & CONFUSED and BOYHOOD. He uses pop culture, clothes, and music to create a look and feel that natives will recognize and tourists will romanticize. This sort of love for the downtrodden “outlaw” country as it was come to be known as was already starting to try to turn into glitter and glamour (look at David Allen Coe’s sequenced boots). The biggest takeaway from all of these characters who pop in and out of their respective scenes has authenticity at its core.
Townes Van Zandt clowning around for the camera one moment, and then the other, he picks up a guitar and sings “Waitin” Around the Die” with all the conviction of somebody on the verge of tears. It’s a beautiful moment to see a love for life and shared experiences bring up such a palpable emotional experience.
What Szalapski was searching for was the different shapes where this type of music can exist, from Van Zandt’s busted-down shack in Austin’s now historical district to Charlie Daniels selling out a high school gymnasium. The highlight of the film comes towards the end when Coe (who has been rightfully critiqued for his racist music) performs at a state prison and tells a story about how he killed a man in prison. This is most likely false musings of a man trying to look tough on stage, but as we get a chance to look around the room, he has the attention of every inmate sitting on that floor like he has all the answers for their salvation.
HEARTWORN HIGHWAYS fell in line with the great hangout movies of the past 50 years when authority started to lose its power and a few moments of creativity was worth more than its weight in gold. Like the great cinema verite films of its time, including GREY GARDENS and GIMME SHELTER, Szalapski’s film effortlessly brings out the beauty of the human spirit.
HEARTWORN HIGHWAYS is currently playing in virtual cinemas courtesy of Kino Marquee.