Always one for a practical joke, Willie Nelson became a four-quadrant celebrity. While Nelson began his storied career in country music, his persona and optimism made him larger than life. He helped establish a subgenre of Country music (known as “Outlaw Country”) while providing mentorship to new and emerging artists. He became known for his common sense approach to marijuana use. Even his TV and film appearances added to his legend. Few musicians can transcend their genre, but even fewer transcend the medium as a whole. It only makes sense that Willie Nelson & Family would require hours to tell the story of the legendary man. While featuring some ups and downs in terms of pacing, the series will be a must-watch for fans of Nelson.
The five-part series follows Nelson’s incredible career. He began as a writer, helping other artists break through on the strength of his lyrics. Eventually, he began releasing his own music. He quickly rose to stardom, releasing hit albums within the Country scene and crossing into the mainstream. Covering more than sixty years of his career, directors Oren Moverman and Thom Zimny examine his impact on music, pop culture, and Americana.
Moverman and Zimny get a treasure trove of material. Not only are there personal home videos, but there are dozens of friends and family willing to preach about Willie’s genuine positivity. However, the famously fun musician faced his own hardships over the years. Most of the film utilizes Nelson’s narration, which rarely creeps into emotional storytelling. However, the effect used for the narration adds a timeless effect to the film. They fit in with other country recordings, namely the voiceovers of fellow Highwayman Johnny Cash. It’s a nice aesthetic that elevates the material from your basic narration.
While the celebration of Nelson is more than deserved, the documentary rarely challenges Nelson. He might be a positive force in the world, but he openly admits to cheating on his wives. Regardless of where you stand on the morality of his actions, the tone of the documentary makes it clear we are in for something of a fluffy celebration. There is nothing wrong with this approach, but it does take any tension out of the film in the cases when it trends near exciting topics. Combined with five episodes, with each running at least forty-five minutes. The lack of tension and long sequences add up. Any interrogation of Nelson and his role in music might have elevated this one, but Willie Nelson & Friends is meant to be a love letter above all else.
While it slightly overstays its welcome, Willie Nelson & Family is a thorough and deep examination of its subject’s career. For fans of Nelson’s career, this will be a brilliant love letter to the musician. However, for more casual fans, it may open their eyes to his contributions to country music. While the series ends strong, the five-hour runtime results in some ideas that stretch beyond their value to the series. Nelson remains a fascinating figure in American Pop Culture history, and the series does him justice.