Warren Zevon: VH1 (Inside) Out — Warren Zevon: Keep Me in Your Heart

Warren Zevon

Warren Zevon quotes Hemingway: “All good stories end in death.” In using this quotations, Zevon reveals yet again his morbid sense of humor, albeit in a much more serious scenario. Zevon’s comment comes after he’s been diagnosed with lung cancer and given three months to live. It also comes after he’s decided to make one final album and to let a VH1 film crew capture the processes of artistic creation and physical death. We know how the story ends, but we don’t have to accept it as good.

The last 18 months have been a Warren Zevon reclamation project, culminating with Zevon posthumously winning two Grammy awards (out of five nominations) for The Wind, the final album he held on to finish. The public rushed to acknowledge the songwriting skills they had frequently overlooked. Artists like Bob Dylan decided to pay tribute to him during their live shows. Most of us pretended to be long-time fans.

It’s hard to talk about a death narrative. (Inside) Out — Warren Zevon: Keep Me in Your Heart is not enjoyable in any acceptable sense, but it’s compelling in ways beyond those stirrings that make us look at car crashes. Acknowledging the pain in the movie becomes an existential provocation that feels almost necessary, and at the same time avoidable (such are the limits of DVDs that you can press “Stop”).

The power of Keep Me in Your Heart resides in Zevon’s directness. He never seems to forget that he’s dying, yet he keeps his life from taking on either a romantic sheen or a pitiful skin. He keeps his trademark sense of humor about the end (how else could he record “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”?), but he doesn’t allow the joking to hide his hurting. He’s dying and it sucks, and that’s about it.

If Zevon’s right that “songwriting was designed for the inarticulate”, then he should have never made a buck at his trade. His words — whether on dying, recording, or eating sandwiches — drive the film. Excerpts from Zevon’s journal cover the gaps in the film and his interview provide as much insight as any visuals. Unless, of course, you allow yourself to watch Zevon’s physical deterioration.

Musically, the highlight of the DVD comes when Bruce Springsteen plays that solo from “Disorder in the House”, while a roomful of music veterans gape in awe. Zevon says, “You really are him.” The sense of humor never leaves. This scene sticks in the memory, but a small part of it stands out as an aftertaste. While Springsteen strikes a comical pose with his guitar, Zevon takes a picture. The levels of recording become surreal, with a video camera capturing a man photographing a man (who’s really him) who will be recorded for the first man’s final document and farewell message. For whom does a dying man take a picture, and where does it fit into the system of inscription? As Zevon deteriorates, he hurries to finish the album, and perhaps the photograph stems from a nagging desire to record it all. We have the photographing, but where is the photograph itself?

Rather than adding to the act of preservation, the bonus features, which take up more time than the actual film, are mostly disappointing. The two music videos, for “Keep Me in Your Heart” and “Disorder in the House” were created from the documentary’s footage, and there’s nothing interesting in them. The highlights from the bonus interviews have already been used for the film, and the sound quality is frustratingly poor on several of them.

It’s a shame that the second half of the DVD contains such inane and carelessly assembled material, because Keep Me in Your Heart reveals the poignancy of a life captured and forces us to deal with the feelings that arise from observing it. We want to feel and to know and, in doing so, to participate. Yet, in the end, we’re spectators, external, and capable of forgetting that Warren’s really dead.