The problem with "authorized" documentaries about famous rock groups is that you can almost always count on these films to never really pose any tough questions toward the subjects they're profiling. After all, very few guitar gods really want you to know much more beyond the mythologized tale of sex, drugs and rock n' roll they’ve helped write for themselves. Unfortunately, Stephen Kijak's CMT documentary on Lynyrd Skynyrd, If I Leave Here Tomorrow, falls victim to becoming the sort of hagiography audience members expect out of this type of picture. Sure to play great in living rooms across the Southern United States when it premieres on the music network that funded it, If I Leave Here Tomorrow fails to interrogate any of the meaning behind Skynyrd's more controversial arena ready iconography, leaving us with little more than a fancy VH1 Special Edition of Behind The Music.
In fairness, if all you're looking for is an extensive A/V history lesson on the band's rise and fall - from Jacksonville, Florida high school dance players in 1964, to tragic Mississippi swamp plane crash victims in 1977 - then If I Leave Here Tomorrow may just do the trick. Originally formed during the Summer of '64, teenage pals Ronnie Van Zant, Bob Burns, Allen Collins, Gary Rossington, and Larry Junstrom made up the earliest incarnation of the band (My Backyard), before changing its name to The Noble Five, printing business cards with a third moniker (One Percent) in '68, and then ultimately settling on Lynyrd Skynyrd (a hybrid of strict PE teacher Leonard Skinner's name and the lyrics from childhood jingle "Camp Grenada") sometime between '69 - '70. The crew were notorious work horses, holing up in the disreputable backwoods Hell House to endlessly record their greatest hits after cutting early demos in the legendary Muscle Shoals Studios.
During the present-day footage, we follow surviving members Johnny Van Zant and Gary Rossington around as they visit the graves of their fallen comrades, provide hazy memories of "too much coke and too much smoke", and how being a bunch of good ol' boys on the road in your early twenties can lead to a ton of trashed hotel rooms. The excess of Skynyrd is covered in full detail: to the drunken backstage antics with Jack Nicholson, to the violent monster lead singer Ronnie Van Zant would become after he'd had a bit too much of your "finest whiskey". These old men are essentially giving us a guided tour of their wild youth, or, at least, what they can remember about it. There's a certainly a charm to these Southern ruffians and their recollections, as they serve as a reminder of an antiquated notion of rock superstardom, which truly did revolve around rebelling and getting as fucked up as humanly possible.
Then there's the darker side to Skynyrd that Kijak's movie sadly brushes over. When asked about the band's usage of the rebel flag in the background of many of their shows, and as branding on their records and in promo materials, the aesthetic choice is written off as being nothing more than that: a decision made by the label on how to sell this Southern pool hall rock to a mass audience. Now, the survivors of that plane crash admit they "understand" why the flag is hurtful, due to its tie-ins to some of the worst parts of American history. However, it feels like a brush off that stinks of revisionism. When asked about "Saturday Night Special", the band members relay stories of how Ronnie was anti-gun, and that they were really a bunch of hippie pacifists. But why not continue on with this line of questioning, pushing into how this attitude conflicted with the beliefs of many who (still) hold their music up as a soundtrack to conservative values? There are a ton of fascinating clashing ideals that make up Lynyrd Skynyrd and their music, yet If I Leave Here Tomorrow doesn't seem to care about diving into any of them at all.
Perhaps this sort of artistic examination is asking too much of a CMT music documentary that's sanctioned by the group (who continue to tour, albeit in an obviously makeshift lineup). As is, If I Leave Here Tomorrow plays like little more than a feature length Hall of Fame visual guidebook, hitting all the beats of a rise and fall story that happened just as the band achieved its musical peak. For casual classic rock lovers, it'll be a swell diversion on a Wednesday evening, when they're just kicking back after a long day with a case of cold ones. For the rest of us looking for something a little deeper beyond surface level hero worship, Kijak's film is going to disappoint and slightly bore. There was an opportunity to craft a truly great music doc here, but If I Leave Here Tomorrow just isn't it.
If I Leave Here Tomorrow will continue to screen at SXSW Wednesday, March 14th, at the Paramount Theater (12:30 PM), and Saturday, March 17th, at the Alamo Ritz (1:45 PM).