When director Tamara Saviano decided to make a film about the Americana songwriter Guy Clark, she knew she couldn’t tell his story without covering the lives.
Two other creative souls – his wife, the songwriter and painter Susanna Clark, and his best friend, the fellow Americana star, Townes Van Zandt. “They influenced him so much, and he influenced them too,” said Saviano to the Guardian. “You can’t separate them.
At the same time, their entwined lives endured deep fractures and brutal hurts. The story Saviano tells in the new documentary Without Getting Killed or Caught, named after a lyric from one of Clark’s best-known songs, LA Freeway, traces a wide arc of personal traumas and creative triumphs. It involves a violent suicide, multiple addictions, and ruinous depressions.
But, despite all that, the central figures forged a three-way love that, however unconventional, enriched them all. To reveal the intimacies of the story, Saviano scored a true coup – audio and written diaries left by Susanna Clark after her death from cancer in 2012. Throughout the film, the diaries are read by Oscar-winner Sissy Spacek. “They’re a gold mine,” Saviano said of the tapes.
That the director was able to secure them from Guy Clark shows the trust he had in her. Saviano, a music journalist, got to know the songwriter, who died of lymphoma in 2016, over a decade ago when she wrote his memoir, which shares the name of her film.
Amazingly, Clark never listened to, or read, his wife’s diaries when he bequeathed them to Saviano. “Guy said, ‘Whatever’s in there is Susanna’s truth and you’re welcome to it,’” the director said. “He wasn’t afraid of it. I thought that was really brave of him.
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Then again, Clark’s openness dovetails with the kind of songs he wrote. Like John Prine, Clark used plain language in his songs to achieve literary feats. Similarly, the music he composed infused basic American genres, like folk, blues, and country, with fresh tunes, which he delivered in a voice that communicated both a dry humor and a ready empathy.
Throughout the film, friends of Guy’s, including fellow Americana stars Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, and Vince Gill, talk admiringly about the craft in his songs, as well as his indifference to commercial concerns. They speak just as openly about the complications in his key relationships.