As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
Dec. 3, 2004
It’s no wonder that The Portrait of Billy Joe is bound to remind viewers of Tender Mercies. Robert Duvall, the star of the Oscar-winning 1983 film about the tribulations and ultimate redemption of a down-and-out country singer, is the executive producer of this new video documentary about “outlaw” country bard Billy Joe Shaver.
Duvall’s girlfriend Luciana Pedraza directed it. (More trivia: Pedraza first met Shaver on the set of The Apostle, a 1997 film directed by and starring Duvall and which featured Shaver in a bit part.)
The similarities between Shaver and Tender Mercies’ “Mac Sledge” are numerous. Both are songwriters from rural Texas who took a stab at mainstream C&W success -- Shaver’s songs have been covered by Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Tom T. Hall, John Anderson and others -- only to fall victim to old demon alcohol. Both suffered immense personal tragedies, including the deaths of their only children, and both found strength through religious faith.
And like “Sledge” -- whose musical career was reborn, albeit on a smaller scale than his heyday, due to the interest of a worshipful band of younger musicians -- Shaver got a second wind in the 1990s fronting a band led by his guitar-stud son Eddy.
Portrait begins with a scene of a shirtless Shaver shaving. He’s grown a big white mustache, but he’s tired of it. His Mama wouldn’t have liked it. It’s coming off.
As he shaves the mustache he jokes about keeping a “stiff upper lip.”
“I guess I kept a stiff upper lip until I got the face I deserve,” he says.
While in front of the mirror, he points out his scar on his chest from a quadruple bypass surgery.
Shaver, who turned 65 this year, has had a pretty rough decade so far. In course of one year, his mother, his son, and the love of his life, Brenda Shaver died. The heart attack followed.
Memories of Brenda dominate much of the documentary. The couple married and divorced three times.
In a painful interview Shaver talks about how after Brenda died he discovered letters and pictures attesting to her relationship with another man.
“He was younger than me,” he says wistfully. “Taller … I don‘t know where he is now, but I wish him well.” Then Shaver makes a shooing motion with his hand and repeats ruefully, “Wish him well.”
Still, Shaver says she’s the only woman he ever loved. He describes in loving detail in the documentary how he wrote the song “I Couldn’t Be Me Without You” in an effort to win her back.
We see Shaver in concert. We see him at his uncle’s farm. We see him win a chicken at a lottery. And we see him in church. The full-immersion baptism scene with his guitarist friend Jesse Taylor takes us right back to Tender Mercies.
But it’s over before we know it. Portrait of Billy Joe is less than an hour long. As a fan of Shaver’s music I wish it would have been fleshed out with more songs. His retelling of all his tragedies indeed is moving, but more of his songs would have made a more complete portrait of the man.
Billy Joe Shaver is scheduled to appear at a V.I.P. only party at Willee’s tonight. For those of us who aren’t V.I.P.s, Steve Terrell’s Santa Fe Opry will feature a lengthy segment of Billy Joe music 10 p.m. tonight on KSFR, 90.7 FM.
I will introduce Billy Joe Shaver at the Santa Fe Film Festival's screening of The Portrait of Billy Joe 2 p.m. Saturday at the CCA theater, so I'm feeling like a V.I.P.
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