WASHINGTON – Few things in Vic Chesnutt’s life occurred without struggle.
Chesnutt’s insightful, often autobiographical songs about vulnerability and mortality never attained huge commercial success, but earned praise and respect from fans, fellow musicians, and friends before the quadriplegic’s death from taking an overdose of muscle relaxants in 2009.
A nearly-completed documentary, “What Doesn’t Kill Me: The Life and Music of Vic Chesnutt,” directed by longtime D.C. filmmaker Scott Stuckey, tells the bittersweet story of the singer/songwriter’s lifelong search for inner peace, after a drunken driving crash that broke his neck, shortly after high school.
Chesnutt was an acquired taste, with his thin, but genuinely evocative voice, and penchant for what he called “little songs.” In 2006, NPR listed Chesnutt at #5 on its list of Top Living Songwriters, behind Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Paul McCartney, and Bruce Springsteen.
Ian MacKaye, influential D.C. punk pioneer and founder of Dischord Records observed, “Maybe America’s not ready for a superstar in a wheelchair.”
Yet, the movie, which Stuckey has been filming since becoming friends with Chesnutt in 1990, may never be publicly released.
Stuckey says Chesnutt’s widow, Tina – in charge of Chesnutt’s estate – has been reluctant to release any of her husband’s projects, posthumously.
Stuckey, whose other projects include the quirky kids-based music show, Pancake Mountain, on PBS Digital, first met Chesnutt at Stuckey’s home studio in Athens, Georgia.
“We recorded an acapella version of ‘White Christmas’ with him singing as Count Dracula,” recalls Stuckey. “I just fell on my butt laughing.”
Stuckey was aware of Chesnutt’s physical challenges, pointed lyrics, and alcohol-fueled performances.
“That whole day we made up rap beats, we talked politics, and before he left that day he asked if I would record his next album, and we were close from then on,” says Stuckey.
Chesnutt’s life changed forever on Easter Sunday 1983, weeks after graduating from high school.
“He was drinking and driving. He flipped his van into a ditch, broke his neck, and became a quadriplegic,” says Stuckey.
“I was drunk as a coot,” Chesnutt said, in an interview in the film. “I didn’t remember anything from 4 in the afternoon and it was 2 in the morning when I crashed.”
Stuckey isn’t certain that the crash was an accident.
“A lot of people think that was a suicide attempt,” says Stuckey. “He’d been plagued by depression even before then.”
Chesnutt spent approximately 15 months in the hospital, “where he did nothing but read,” says Stuckey.
In the film, Chesnutt recalled his self-imposed isolation, avoiding talking with anyone after the crash: “I was embarrassed. What a dumbassed thing to do. I was president of the student council and then a few months later I break my neck in a drunken driving car wreck. What a moron.”
Chesnutt has said his stay in the hospital forced him to re-evaluate his future in music.
“He was always really smart,” says Stuckey, “but now he was taking on this reading and stuff and finding a way he wanted his lyrics to sound and what he wanted to do with his music.”
Before the crash, Chesnutt had been “a pretty good” guitarist, but his ability to play after the crash wasn’t clear.
“First he played those kind of toy guitars, the kind you get at Sears with nylon strings, so he could kind of hold onto it,” says Stuckey.
“He’d get a glove and tear off the fingertips, so it was just the palm part. And then he’d superglue a pick onto the glove so he could strum the most basic of chords.”
Chesnutt’s limitations influenced the sound of his music, Stuckey says. Chesnutt only had control over two fingers on his left, or fingering hand, which required him to reconfigure chords.
Over the years, Chesnutt’s recordings ranged from him on a solo acoustic guitar to fully-orchestrated collaborations with Widespread Panic, Lambchop, and Elf Power.
In 1996, musicians including Madonna, R.E.M., Soul Asylum, The Smashing Pumpkins, Garbage, and Cracker recorded a tribute album of Vic Chesnutt songs, called “Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation.”
Over the years, Chesnutt was reluctant to discuss the meanings of his songs, preferring the audience draw its own conclusions.
Yet, because of his friendship with Stuckey, and his love of being filmed, the two began discussing every song the prolific Chesnutt had ever written.
“He was a natural performer,” says Stuckey.
Over his career, Chesnutt released 18 albums.
“Vic just kept going,” says Stuckey. “We went chronologically through every song on each album, and of course that led to all these different side stories, since his music is so personal.”
Despite Chesnutt’s talents, his physical and emotional challenges often weighed heavily, and he attempted suicide more than once.
“It was always in the back of my mind that he was kind of on borrowed time,” says Stuckey. “How he did what he did always amazed me.”
Yet, Stuckey says Chesnutt’s dark humor was disarming, and enabled him to find relief through his songwriting.
“For someone who was depressed, how joyful and full of life he was,” marveled Stuckey. “In some ways he was the least depressed person I knew.”
“When he got depressed it was real sadness, but for the most part he was always happy. His lyrics talk a lot about suicide, but if you knew him or worked with him on a day to day basis, you really didn’t see that depression.”
Stuckey estimates he had recorded almost 400 hours of interviews and performances with Chesnutt, who died on Christmas Day 2009, at the age of 45.
At the time of his death, Chesnutt was separated from his wife, Tina.
Chesnutt had several life challenges weighing heavily on him, when he took an overdose of muscle relaxants, according to Stuckey.
“He owed the hospital a lot of money. He needed even more surgery, and they were talking about taking his house away, and there were just a lot of unresolved issues at the time of his death.”
In the film, Chesnutt criticizes the health care system.
“I could actually lose a kidney, only because I cannot afford to go back in there again,” said Chesnutt. “I don’t want to die, especially just because I don’t have enough money to go in the hospital.
“They can take my house away because of a kidney stone operation, that’s absurd,” said Chesnutt.
Rough cuts of the documentary have been shown at a few private screenings, but a public release of the film appears to be in legal limbo, Stuckey says.
“Right now we’re having problems with his estate,” says Stuckey. “His wife, Tina doesn’t really want it released now – she’s refused to say why.”
“Even though Tina and Vic had been separated for years at the time of his death, Vic didn’t have a will, and under Georgia law she became executor of his estate, which includes the publishing to all his songs,” says Stuckey.
“Even though I own the footage, I need the rights from both her and the record companies to use the music,” says Stuckey.
Stuckey says he believes Vic’s record companies, 10 different ones for 18 albums, would all be on board for inclusion in the documentary.
“But Tina is not,” says Stuckey. “She has sent cease and desist letters to all Vic-related projects.”
“There hasn’t been one posthumous release of anything Vic,” he says.
Stuckey says Chesnutt had recorded two albums worth of music, which remain unreleased after his death.
Scott Stuckey says he has no doubt Vic Chesnutt wanted his story told through their film collaboration.
“We talked about it all the time, and there’s no ambiguity about it. That makes it that much harder to deal with this, because everyone wants to respect Tina’s wishes, but we also want to honor Vic’s legacy and what he wanted.”
Several emails from WTOP to Tina Chesnutt seeking comment about the film went unanswered.
Watch the trailer for the film: