'The King of Luck'

Amiably sketchy Willie Nelson doc is more of an affectionate tribute than an in-depth portrait.

More of an affectionate tribute than an in-depth portrait, “The King of Luck” is an amiably sketchy doc about Willie Nelson — singer, songwriter, charismatic performer, beloved icon and all-around living legend — that seems best suited for release as a DVD packaged with a deluxe-edition greatest-hits CD. Directing his first pic since the ill-starred “All the Pretty Horses” (2000), Billy Bob Thornton approaches his subject as a starstruck aficionado, offering nothing more substantial than admiring testimonials and amusing anecdotes from Nelson’s friends, fellow musicians and family members. Other fans may be enthralled, but there’s little here to intrigue the uninitiated.

Indeed, Thornton appears to presuppose that anyone opting to view “King of Luck” already knows the major details of Nelson’s professional career and private life. Pic provides only cursory biographical background, and often is distractingly vague while alluding to career milestones, painful tragedies — including the death of a son — and assorted brushes with the law. Even the docu’s title might be confusing to anyone who doesn’t know that Luck actually is the name of Nelson’s Austin-area ranch, and not a small town Nelson may have purchased or established somewhere.

On the plus side, Afshin Shahidi’s attractive black-and-white lensing enhances the talking-heads interviews and sporadic musical performances. (Some still photos have an arresting Ansel Adams look.) And Thornton effectively teases the audience by delaying interviews with Nelson himself until relatively late in the pic, after several other notables (along with his wife, children and band members) have had their say.

Some of the interviews and quite a bit of the archival footage underscore Nelson’s enduring influence as a songwriter. The late Faron Young, who had a big hit with Nelson’s “Hello, Walls,” appears here in a vintage clip to boisterously express his gratitude. Other artists, ranging from Ray Price to Kris Kristofferson to Woody Harrelson, pay their own respects in jokey but sincere interviews conducted for the doc.

Unfortunately, Thornton doesn’t quite manage to develop a throughline for his material. As result, his pic lacks narrative momentum and feels ready to end two or three times before it actually does.

The King of Luck

Production

A Meathouse Prods. production. Produced by Harve Cook, Thomas Mayhue, Kristin Scott. Executive producers, Michael Minkler, Mark Rothbaum, Bill Gerber. Directed by Billy Bob Thornton.

Crew

Camera (B&W, HD), Afshin Shahidi; editor, Carol Martori; music, the Cods; sound, Mark Weingarten, Chris Cooper. Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (closer, Headliners), March 19, 2011. Running time: 81 MIN.

With

Amy Nelson-Niccore, Annie Nelson, Bobbie Nelson, Connie Nelson, Billy Joe Shaver, Joe Ely, James "Poodie" Locke, Kinky Friedman, Kris Kristofferson, Lana Nelson, Lukas Nelson, Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Paula Nelson, Paul English, Ray Price, Woody Harrelson, Willie Nelson.

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