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I’m a fan of all sorts of music but when pressed, I’d have to say my favorite type is “Americana.” When I was a kid, my mom was a rock n’ roll fan and my dad liked country. It truly was an awesome way to experience music and get a good base going for future fanhood. Those two parental influences dovetail into the Americana music I gravitate towards. I won’t even try to go down a laundry list of my favorite bands and in fact, “Americana” is kind of a catchall term that may not even apply to most, like Guy Clark, the subject of Tamara Saviano and Paul Whitfield’s impeccable new doc on Clark entitled Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark. Clark was a poet, first and foremost. Then a singer/songwriter, rapscallion, mentor and inspiration to many. 

The doc’s catchy title comes from Clark’s tune (which has been on a running loop in my head for a week and, that’s totally fine) L.A. Freeway – as in: if I could just get off of this L.A. freeway/without getting killed or caught – and truly captures the spirit and career of a sadly lesser-known songwriter who was every bit as good if not better than more popular contemporaries like Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash. If placed into filmmaker terms, Clark would be akin to Abbas Kiarostami, John Ford and  Ramin Bahrani, all in one. If you know, you know. Yet where Without Getting Killed or Caught becomes more than just your typical career spanning doc is the way Whitfield and Saviano truly understand that while Guy Clark is the rebellious star of the film and IRL, without his wife Susanna Clark and best friend Townes Van Zandt (another criminally lesser-known songwriter), Guy Clark may not have reached the heights he eventually came to.

Without Getting Killed or Caught eschews much of Clark’s growing up and gets to the career stuff pretty quickly which is good. His story as a musician and that of the love affair between him, Susanna and Townes is very much akin to the old saying that “sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.” Indeed, much like the unspoken three-way love affair in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Susanna Clark always made it well known that she deeply loves both Guy and Townes. There’s a beautifully telling quote from Susanna in the film where she says about the two men, “one has my heart, the other has my soul,” we k now who is who but, the film never differentiates. Townes loves Susanna too but out of respect for his closest friend, refuses to destroy their marriage, a marriage which is steeped in early sorrow and fueled by art, booze, drugs, philosophy and music. It’s all rich and deep stuff for storytelling and Saviano and Whitfield tell it beautifully through photos, existing artwork like paintings and sketches, songs and, most notably, a few tape recordings Susanna would make of the three of them on her trusty tape recorder, “TR.”

I should note, Saviano wrote an incredibly wonderful, in-depth biography on Clark also titled Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark. His story and the tragic story of Townes and Susanna is beautifully told therein. Thus, I was a bit nervous in terms of the documentary living up to the book. And frankly, it doesn’t. How can it? It’s a 95 minute film and the book over 400 pages. But what I loved about Without Getting Killed or Caught the documentary is that through a nice variety of mediums, the basic storyline of the book is brought to life onscreen, almost as if bringing to life book passages through cinematic brushstrokes. 

I also enjoyed seeing stories of Guy, Susanna and Townes brought to life by people in their immediate orbit like Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, Vince Gill and Verlon Thompson. Thompson in particular tells some gutting stories of the darker sides of Guy and Townes and his commentary on fanhood towards Townes during his final tour is truly haunting, I’ll never forget the way he tells it. Chilling, sad and also regretful. 

Even if you’ve yet to hear of Guy Clark (or, any of the amazing musicians I’ve mentioned above), Without Getting Killed or Caught is still an engrossing and engaging documentary. The fact that truly indelible artists lived this way will never stop amazing me. I’m not entirely sure of co-director Paul Whitfield’s relationship to Clark but kudos to Tamara Saviano for always carrying the torch for Clark’s music. Her book and this documentary show the man, warts and all, but from a place of respect, love and compassion. Watch the film and discover the songwriters songwriter. 

– Don R. Lewis (@ThatDonLewis)

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Don R. Lewis is a filmmaker and writer from Northern California. He was a film critic for Film Threat before becoming Editor-in-Chief of Hammer to Nail in 2014. He holds a BA in screenwriting from California State Northridge and is an MA candidate in Cinema Studies at San Francisco State.

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