Film Review: ‘Heartworn Highways Revisited’

New Nashville talent takes the spotlight in a docu that's rich in good music if low on context.

Bobby Bare Jr., Shelly Colvin, Andrew Combs, Justin Townes Earle, Bobby Ellis, Jonny Fritz, Josh Hedley, Phil Hummer, Nikki Lane, Langhorne Slim, John McCauley, Shovels & Rope, William Tyler, David Allan Coe, Guy Clark, Steve Young.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3983642/

A 40-years-later sequel of sorts, “Heartworn Highways Revisited” pays homage to a 1976 feature by the late James Szalapski that cast a casual spotlight on “new country” talent in Nashville. Wayne Price’s documentary goes back to the country-music capital, finding a fresh crop of singer-songwriters existing outside the industry mainstream. All too faithful to the original in its resistance to providing any background on (or even identifying) individual subjects, this next-generation survey nonetheless works splendidly as the audiovisual equivalent of an up-and-coming-artists mixtape. Further fest travel is signaled, with niche broadcast sales possible in a future that will skew primarily toward home formats.

Szalapski shot in “Music City” in the winter of 1975-76, training his primary attention on a clutch of so-called “outlaw” musicians whose hippie-ish style and more idiosyncratic songwriting set them apart from the Nashville establishment of the time. Glimpsed here in vintage clips, they included David Allan Coe, Guy Clark, Steve Young and Townes Van Zandt. All save the hard-living Van Zandt (who died in 1997 at age 52) are also seen as gray-haired veterans and mentors in the new footage. (Glimpsed briefly in the 1976 film was a very young Steve Earle, who’s since become a defining figure in the Americana music movement, but who is absent from the “Revisited” returnees.)

Slightly upping the gender equity from what had been an all-male bicentennial roll call, Price casts a wider net over a baker’s dozen or so of youngish performers who’ve been drawn to today’s Nashville, but seemingly stay well outside its eternally well-guarded mainstream. There are a lot of terrific songs heard, performed in backyards, on the couch, at a few actual gigs and in the occasional studio session. It’s sorely frustrating, however, that Price follows the first film’s lead in refusing to identify songs — or even their performers — until the final credits. It would be doing both a big favor to allow a little onscreen text throughout, imprinting the relevant info on the minds of viewers who might become those musicians’ new fans.

Likewise, even more than its predecessor (which utilized some archival materials), “Heartworn Highways Revisited” refuses to provide any explanatory background about the talents we meet, what scene if any they belong to, and how they relate to the big-business side of Nashville music. In a too-rare moment of insight about the industry, one of them notes that the odds of a struggling songwriter getting covered by a popular country artist are much worse now than they were back then. The “outlaw” likes of Van Zandt and Coe had their songs turned into hits by Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Tanya Tucker and other big stars, whereas it’s noted that today’s chart luminaries seldom if ever show any interest in the kinds of indie talent on tap here. There’s also a brief mention of the gulf between Americana and country, hinting at the former’s status as the real “roots” music of today, while the latter has turned into a lucrative high-gloss, image-conscious pop machine.

But these topics deserve more exploration than an offhand comment or two. How many among the newbies must work non-music day jobs? Have they ever paid to play? Even Nashville itself as a drastically changed city is never discussed. Price (also d.p. here) provides some flavorful images of local churches and such, but apart from this diverting footage, the docu could have been filmed anywhere for all the attention paid its historied setting.

Though the older excerpts are easily distinguished by the softer tone of their 16mm filming, there isn’t much obvious difference between the generations, apart from the younger folk baring more tattoos and perhaps more consistently sharp-witted, often funny lyrics. In the end, the film’s frustrating unwillingness to provide context is outweighed by the pleasure and diversity of the music heard. Assembly is pro, with lensing and sound both above docu average.

Film Review: 'Heartworn Highways Revisited'

Reviewed online, San Francisco, Feb. 5, 2015. (In Santa Barbara Film Festival.) Running time: 93 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) A Gigantic Pictures and Sea Lion Films presentation. Produced by Graham Leader, Brian Devine. Executive producer, Jonathan Gray. Co-producer, Pamela Ryan.

Crew: Directed by Wayne Price. Camera (color, 16mm/HD), Price; editors, Price, Kelly P. Kendrick; music supervisor, Chris Sunday; set decorator, Alex Keller; sound, Ron Dicianni; sound designer/re-recording mixer, Tom Paul.

With: Bobby Bare Jr., Shelly Colvin, Andrew Combs, Justin Townes Earle, Bobby Ellis, Jonny Fritz, Josh Hedley, Phil Hummer, Nikki Lane, Langhorne Slim, John McCauley, Shovels & Rope, William Tyler, David Allan Coe, Guy Clark, Steve Young.

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