NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Don’t **** With the Lewises!

Music Film Highlights From the Nashville Film Festival

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Of the music films that I’ve seen at the Nashville Film Festival this week, three I’ve especially liked occupy themselves with varying degrees of eccentricity. Remember that the difference between eccentricity and insanity is sometimes just the matter of a regular paycheck. Eccentricity is, of course, not exclusive to musical artists, but it’s often found where the most interesting artists live and work.

That certainly applies to the late Townes Van Zandt, one of the greatest songwriters ever. Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt is a thorough look at one of the more remarkable singer-songwriters of modern times. Townes was a completely free spirit growing up in a Texas culture that did not value or encourage or even tolerate free spirits. He had much of his memory completely scrubbed and erased by shock treatments ordered by his family. They sent him away to have his brain blasted because he was so unconventional and rebellious. To see him try to describe having no childhood memories is heartbreaking.

When I knew him in Texas, the notion of Townes as an athlete seemed totally out of the question. Drinker and a bit of a drugger, yes. But then for him to reveal that while he was a varsity wrestler he was sniffing glue on a regular basis is mind-bending. And then he told the coaches he wouldn’t wrestle if he didn’t get glue.

Willie Nelson and Guy Clark and other friends tell wonderful stories about Townes, and you get to see Townes wandering around throughout his too-brief, chaotic life, looking dazed and confused but always a bit beatific.

Cowboy Jack’s Home Movies (or, Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan) is one of the most charming films you will ever see. Cowboy Jack Clement is the closest we will ever come to meeting Puck. He is truly the eternally young imp of the music industry. He’s also for many years been running cameras whenever people such as Johnny Cash or Waylon Jennings or John Prine or Dolly Parton or U2’s Bono drop into his studio to record. The results are funny, moving and completely unpredictable. Clement’s conversations with an animated Shakespeare are an unexpected reward.

Don’t F*** With the Lewises! is an unexpected delight with a totally unexpected ending. Two idealistic Norwegian documentary filmmakers touring the South drop in on Jerry Lee Lewis’s sister at the singer’s childhood home in Ferriday, La. Frankie Jean Lewis has converted the home into a creepy museum and shrine to the Killer. Next door, she owns a unique establishment: a drive-through bar and liquor store. This is not just a matter of a drive-through window. Customers drive into a converted barn that’s lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves of liquor and wine bottles. Patrons can order bottles to go or mixed drinks to take along. Frankie Jean’s husband, Maron, runs the bar-liquor store, and when he comes home from work, he and Frankie Jean get into an involved, drawn out sort of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf kind of bickering that evolves into a discussion of the very nature of Jerry Lee Lewis. Frankie Jean is a very … intense person.

The specter of the spooky Lewis clan patriarch, Elmo Lewis, hovers high over this gothic tale — not to mention the demonic images and clips of Jerry Lee that are floating throughout. It develops that Jerry Lee is not much as a brother but very good at being a living legend.

And some unexpected interaction with customers next door at the drive-through bar-liquor store provides a startling ending, which also provides the movie’s title.