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'If I Leave Here Tomorrow' review: Lynyrd Skynyrd doc is an excellent portrait of a legendary band

The documentary gets to the essence of the band's enduring appeal. 

Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd are the subject of

Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd are the subject of the Showtime documentary "If I Leave Here Tomorrow."   Photo Credit: SHOWTIME/Johansen Krause

THE DOCUMENTARY "Lynyrd Skynyrd: If l Leave Here Tomorrow" 

WHEN | WHERE Saturday at 9 p.m. on Showtime

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Original (and current) guitarist Gary Rossington largely recalls the early years of this formative Southern rock band, from the days when he and vocalist Ronnie Van Zant first began, along with Allen Collins (who died in 1990), drummer Bob Burns (who died in 2015), bassists Larry Junstrom, Greg Walker, Leon Wilkeson and guitarist Ed King. It has lots of footage and interviews — including with keyboardist Billy Powell (who died in 2009) and King, who left the band in 1975 (he returned 1987-96). This film, directed by Stephen Kijak, also gets to the roots of songs like “Simple Man,” “Country Boy,” “Whiskey Rock-a-Roller," "Sweet Home Alabama" and, of course, "Free Bird."

Van Zant, along with guitarist Steve Gaines, backup singer Cassie Gaines and road manager Dean Kilpatrick, died when their chartered Convair CV-240 crashed in the woods near Gillsburg, Mississippi, in 1977.

MY SAY Every legendary band has at least one myth that needs dispelling, and Lynyrd Skynyrd's myth had to do with its own mortality. For years there was a widely held assumption among casual rock fans that Skynyrd ended with the 1977 crash. Except that's not remotely true: The band regrouped a decade later with Ronnie's brother Johnny as lead singer — and the farewell tour is underway this summer. The band, which remains hugely popular on Long Island, swung through Northwell Health at Jones Beach Theater in late June. The last "Free Bird" will be played, no doubt long and loud,  in 2019.

Durable and basic, Skynyrd transcended if not discarded its regional roots nearly half a century ago, while infinite airplay has made "Bird" and "Sweet Home Alabama" the soundtrack of our lives, whether we wanted the soundtrack or not. These days when someone shouts out "Free Bird" at a concert — any concert — it's meant as a joke, so even that classic has drifted off to the other side of parody.

With the end near and "Free Bird" still playing on a classic rock radio near you, it's time for the appraisal and this authoritative film arriving Saturday manages the feat effortlessly. Kijak, along with a wonderfully laconic Rossington, establish that this band was essentially the application of hard work to luck. A not-inconsiderable amount of talent took care of the rest. The veteran Blood, Sweat & Tears producer and Dylan consort, Al Kooper, got them on a bigger stage in 1973, as opening act to The Who. By 1977, they were filling arenas across Europe. Their fame was compressed into just four packed years.

But "If I Leave Here Tomorrow" especially gets to the essence of the enduring appeal. In this telling, Skynyrd never drifted far from the hardscrabble Jacksonville, Florida, neighborhood where it began and never disavowed that regional allegiance. This was a Southern rock band, that name-checked Neil Young (in "Sweet Home") after the searing "Southern Man" came out in 1970. They played with a giant Confederate flag as a backdrop. "People think we're a bunch of drunk rednecks," Van Zant said in an old interview. "That's correct."

The film refuses to assess Skynyrd through a 2018 lens. "The Confederate flag was never meant to offend anyone," Rossington says here. "I know it's naive to say because it does hurt people because it reminds them of the [Civil] war and slavery, but we were never into that. We were just showing where we were from."

Where they were from was not all that far from where Van Zant and the Gaineses died on the night of Oct. 20, 1977. "We spiraled in from 9,000 feet," says former drummer Artimus Pyle. "There was no panic, no chaos. Everyone was in prayer, deep in thought." Rossington said that as the plane started to clip the treetops, Van Zant had begun to make his way to the cockpit. Van Zant then turned back to the cabin, and his old friend — a guy he started playing with as a kid back in 1964 — recalled the faintest smile.

BOTTOM LINE Excellent portrait of a legendary band that gets to the heart of why it's endured — that tragedy notwithstanding.

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