Coming up on seven years since his death on Christmas Day 2009, the late great James Victor “Vic” Chesnutt remains a sadly obscure figure to the mainstream at large. He has his fans, of course, many of them quite famous. But that hasn’t been enough to spread Chesnutt’s reputation much further than the cult following he had when he was alive, and that is too bad.
The music Chesnutt left behind speaks for itself, 18 albums of rough-cut brilliance (1996’s About to Choke, which is Chesnutt at his most accessible, is a good place to start). If you’re interested in his story, I can’t help but steer you toward the AMS/UTP book “Don’t Suck, Don’t Die: Giving Up Vic Chesnutt” by Kristin Hersh, a beautiful, harrowing and deeply personal portrait of Chesnutt written by one of the artist’s closest friends and fellow travelers.
And for an accompanying macro view, there’s a rough cut of an amazing little documentary film making the Youtube rounds — “What Doesn’t Kill Me: The Life and Music of Vic Chesnutt.” Assembled by obsessive Chesnutt fan Scott Stuckey, “What Doesn’t Kill Me” deftly captures the artist’s twisted charisma and onstage brilliance, with testimonials from numerous friends and fellow fans (including Hersh).
But Chesnutt was a complicated artist and human, who left an equally complicated legacy in his wake. So it’s not at all surprising that this film has been a source of controversy, even though it’s never been conventionally released. Over the past year or so, there’s been a heated war of words between filmmaker Stuckey on one side and Chesnutt’s widow, Tina Whatley Chesnutt, on the other.
Who is right? And will things ever be resolved enough for some version of “What Doesn’t Kill Me” to someday show in theaters? I sure don’t know. Nevertheless, I still appreciated seeing it, and knowing this film is out there for however long that might be. If you’re interested, I’d advise watching it sooner rather than later.