The SXSW Conference started as a music festival and later added films. In recent years, an artistic mash-up of these two has emerged with the 24 Beats Per Second section of the event. It showcases films revealing the sounds, culture, and influence of music and musicians, usually focusing on documentaries. One of the tributes to music makers past that caught my attention this year was If I Leave Here Tomorrow: A Film About Lynyrd Skynyrd.
The film was a revealing and touching portrait of artists gone too soon.
Yes, We’ll Remember
Lynyrd Skynyrd is the band credited with popularizing Southern Rock during the 1970s. Their hits such as “Sweet Home Alabama,” “That Smell,” and “Gimme Three Steps” are known to many people who probably couldn’t identify the band. Its classic song “Freebird” asks:
If I leave here tomorrow
Would you still remember me?
For I must be traveling on, now
Cause there’s too many places I’ve got to see
The song evokes great irony as the founder of the band, Ronnie Van Zant, musician Steve Gaines, and backup singer Cassie Gaines were killed in a plane crash in 1977 on the way to a concert. The film documents the early years of the band from 1964 to the accident and touches on its re-founding in 1987, by Van Zant’s younger brother Johnny.
Telling the Story
The film was written and directed by Stephen Kijak, who has been making documentaries about musicians for two decades. He has worked with legends such as David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, and The Backstreet Boys.
Kijak did a masterful job of intertwining new and decades old footage to tell the complicated story of a band who were typical rockers trashing hotel rooms, but who set themselves apart with a discipline and dedication to their music which was truly a rare thing. They would show up to recording sessions ready to go with all their songs perfectly arranged. A rare thing for musicians, the film suggested.
A dozen musicians were a part of the original incarnation of the band. In telling their stories, Kijak revealed truths about Ronnie Van Zant and the rock music scene. As I watched, I thought, how much I would have hated these guys if I had met them in the 1970s. They wouldn’t have liked me, the uptight history major, either. None of that had any effect on my love for their music but was illuminating in that it shows how as humans we can love the art, while despising the artist.
Kijak made the decision not to play “Freebird” until the very end of the film. The timing made me tear up – the only moment that happened during any of the dozen films I saw at SXSW.
Questions for the Band
After the screening Kijak and current band members Johnny Van Zant, Gary Rossington, and Rickey Medlocke fielded questions from the audience. Kijak started out by saying how privileged he felt in being able to tell this story.
One of the audience members mentioned that he had been to the band’s first concert in Houston. This inspired Van Zant to observe, “I‘ve been in the band 31 years and it all seems like a dream to me. The film was great because I didn’t know all the people who had been in the band in the 60s and 70s.”
An audience member asked what they thought of the removal of statues of Robert E. Lee and the effort to sand down Stone Mountain.
Kijak said, “Well, that might be another film.”
Van Zant appeared reluctant to get into this controversy, but did say, “We’ve got Southern roots, and we’re American made.”
An audience member asked if there was any new music coming. Van Zant said that they wanted to do a new album and had a farewell tour beginning in May.
A fan asked the band about the music they listen to now.
Rossington answered, “Ed Sheeran. That’s about it. I still love the Beatles and the blues.”
Van Zant said, “Anything old; the great country artists. I don’t listen to the new stuff.”
A fan asked what they thought about the film.
Rossington answered: “It was awesome to see the guys and seeing how freakin’ great they were. We didn’t know it back then just how good the band and the music was. Unfortunately, they had to die before they knew their songs would turn into classics. They had no idea. It would have been great if they could have seen that happen for themselves.”
Photos by author