As a young man, the singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt wanted to know what the experience of falling was like. So he leaned over the railing of a balcony, and allowed himself to plunge four stories to the ground, where he landed on his back.
The moment was more whimsical than violent, more scientific than suicidal. And it seems to capture, anecdotally, what Margaret Brown wants us to know about Van Zandt in ''Be Here to Love Me," her plangent documentary about his life.
Van Zandt died in 1997 of heart failure at the age of 52, after years of drinking and drugs. But his demise, as unpleasant as it must have been, was not the stuff of legend that lures Hollywood. ''Be Here to Love Me" suggests that Van Zandt lived and died softly, taking its cues from his blues and country-folk songs, which include ''Waiting Around to Die," ''None But the Rain," and the beautiful, unbearably sad ''St. John the Gambler."
An unnarrated collection of gently told reminiscences that rove impressionistically, the film touches on various points in a career that remained a well-kept secret from the start, when Van Zandt began performing in the late 1960s. His biggest successes came when friends recorded his music. Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard made the shadowy ''Pancho and Lefty" their own, and his prettiest song, ''If I Needed You," sounds even prettier somehow when Emmylou Harris sings it. But ''Be Here to Love Me" is hazy on career specifics and Van Zandt's creative process. It's really interested in conjuring a sense of the man he was.
To that end, wistful interviews with Van Zandt's widow, first ex-wife, children, fellow musicians, and friends (Kris Kristofferson, Steve Earle, Kinky Friedman) are sewn together with shots that seem to embody both the lonely essence of his lyrics and the fine, tranquil guitar picking that guides his tales. The film is as image-oriented as his songs: Lots of driver's-eye-view photography of highways and the occasional glimpse of rain pelting a windshield.
Over those shots, Brown plays audio recordings in which Van Zandt is given to self-prophesizing. Early in the film he says he suspects his life will end before his work is done: ''I designed it that way," he says. This disembodied prognosis lends the proceedings a metaphysical quality that Brown cleverly complements. Clips, for instance, of Van Zandt talking about nothing in particular then performing on Ralph Emery's old TNN talk show, ''Nashville Now," are used in an almost spectral manner.
The film has an amusing, offhand manner of revealing crucial personal details. A friend of Van Zandt's recalls that he and Van Zandt had towns named after their families. They were both born in Ft. Worth, Texas. And they both spent time at mental institutions and had electro-shock therapy. In Van Zandt's case, the treatments seemed to cost him a vast, irretrievable piece of himself. Sometimes on stage and in interviews he is serene to the point of seeming out of it. But the unflappable person he appeared to be in public was at odds with the meaner soul his two sons say he occasionally was.
''Be Here to Love Me" doesn't try to reconcile these sides of Van Zandt. Brown, in fact, seems content to let an aura of mystery linger around the man. So when the film ends, we're haunted. We've been driving with a ghost.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.