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What Doesn’t Kill Me… The Life and Music of Vic Chesnutt Premieres at Ciné

Photo Credit: Barbette Houser

Bob Sleppy, director of Nuci’s Space, and Patterson Hood

What Doesn’t Kill Me…The Life and Music of Vic Chesnutt, a film by Scott Stuckey, had its rough-cut premiere on Wednesday evening, Oct. 1 at Ciné, benefitting Nuçi’s Space. Attendees included a large number of luminaries from the Athens music scene, many of whom had worked with Chesnutt through the years, including Michael Stipe, members of Elf Power and producer John Keane. Stuckey and John “JoJo” Hermann, producer of the film and keyboardist of Widespread Panic, were on hand after the screening to answer questions and reminisce about their friend and beloved Athens musician, Vic Chesnutt. Stuckey and Hermann have been working on the project together since 2005, when Hermann was researching Chesnutt for his masters thesis.

Widespread Panic's John 'JoJo' Hermann, the film's producer, with REM's Mike Mills. lg.JPG

Photo Credit: Barbette Houser

Widespread Panic’s John ‘JoJo’ Hermann, the film’s producer, with REM’s Mike Mills

The movie ably captures the inimitable personality and voice of Vic Chesnutt, a Southern bohemian poet whose life and music were made darker and more complex by a lifetime battling depression and its often attendant baggage of alcoholism and attempted suicide. About his own work, Chesnutt said, “I write little songs,” referring not only to their simplicity but also to his first album, Little. That album, produced by Michael Stipe and recorded by John Keane in one day in 1988, opened the door to Chesnutt’s world for the rest of us, and none of us who have looked inside have remained the same. Describing meeting Chesnutt for the first time, Stuckey said, “He had me hooked. His music, his humor, he was just so unique. I knew then I needed this dude in my life, and he was. He was an extraordinary human being.”

Andrew Rieger, Kai Riedl, and Andy Le Master at the premiere. lg.JPG

Photo Credit: Barbette Houser

Andrew Rieger, Kai Riedl and Andy Le Master

The bittersweet stories told by Chesnutt’s many friends and musical collaborators, the painful and simultaneously playful lyrics of Vic’s giant stash of songs, the unique way that he sang them—adding as many syllables to a word as he needed to make it his own, the quantity and quality of the sound of the songs—from Vic singing “Isadora Duncan” as a sparse and minimal solo to his performance of the electric powerhouse “Protein Drink” with members of Panic as Brute: The audio of the film alone is a treasure. Add to that the fact that the camera seemed to love Chesnutt—he was surprisingly photogenic and exuded a strange, quirky charisma—and the fact that Stuckey filmed him almost obsessively since getting his first video camera around 1990, and you have the ingredients for a great film about an extraordinary musician and songwriter whose story begs a broader audience and whose legacy needs to be shared.

Mike Mills and Todd McBride at Cine. lg.JPG

Photo Credit: Barbette Houser

Mike Mills and Todd McBride

The movie interestingly points out that in 2006, NPR released a list of the greatest living songwriters at that time, and Chesnutt was fifth on the list after Dylan, Waits, McCartney and Springsteen—all of whom are in the Rock and Roll Music Hall of Fame. Recurring themes in the film are Chesnutt’s brushes with suicide and with critical recognition and commercial success.

Chesnutt was notorious for his lack of self-editing on stage, and some of that is included in the film. When an audience member shouts out about a song, “What does it mean?” Chesnutt characteristically shouts back, “Buy the record and find out, muthafucka!” Stuckey and Hermann are not sure when the film will actually be finished and released, but when it is, buy a ticket and spread the word.