Lynyrd Skynyrd hits the big screen in ‘If I Leave Here Tomorrow’

Published July 3 2018
Updated July 3 2018

Imagine premiering a film about Lynyrd Skynyrd in their hometown of Jacksonville. Imagine all the hoopla and plus-ones youíd have to wrangle for the first screening of a new documentary about Floridaís favorite surviving Southern rock sons.

"All the family and friends, all the relatives, everyone involved with the band ó a lot of them still live down there," said Stephen Kijak, director of the new documentary If I Leave Here Tomorrow: A Film About Lynyrd Skynyrd. "It was a mix of kin: brothers and sisters, family, relatives, wives, everybody that had a big hand in helping us make it. It was a really cool event."

Produced by CMT, the documentary spends a good amount of time lionizing its hard-driving late frontman Ronnie Van Zant, who died in the bandís notorious 1977 plane crash. But it also plays like an elegy for the band, a statement on how they wish to be remembered ó particularly guitarist Gary Rossington, the sole founding member who tours with Skynyrd to this day.

Kijak has experience telling complicated rock Ďní roll stories. His eclectic rock-doc resume includes films on the Rolling Stones, Backstreet Boys, Scott Walker, Jaco Pistorius and the Japanese arena-metal band X Japan. Heíll follow If I Leave Here Tomorrow with projects about Judy Garland and the Smiths.

If I Leave Here Tomorrow will get its Tampa Bay premiere at 8 p.m. Monday at the Hideaway Cafe in St. Petersburg. Kijack spoke with the Times about the doc and dealing with Skynyrdís legacy.

How much editorial say did the band have in the film?

They didnít have a hand in it. Only in so much as they agreed to let it happen and gave us interviews. But it was a real independent project. We just went about our business and made the film with practically no oversight. We let the management see it; CMT definitely chimed in. But there was very little hands-on (involvement). We were really left to our own devices. Which was just brilliant for us.

Was there much that the band didnít want to get into?

Not really. By the time they did get a look at it, they really liked it. We did a lot of hard work on the research end, arduous hours, digging up photos and film and trying to find things and schedule things, but editorially, it was like a dream.

Youíve had difficult subjects before ó not necessarily the people themselves, but like, the process of figuring out how to get into Scott Walker or X Japan. I imagine itís not dissimilar trying to get into the mind of Ronnie Van Zant, because there just is nothing from the past 40 years that hasnít been unearthed.

Itís an accumulation, a portrait through memory. Itís people remembering him, talking about him. Luckily thereís some interviews preserved; you can listen to him speak. So youíre able to have Ronnie there when you needed him, in his own voice. And itís a collection of memories from just enough people to round out a portrait of the man. And like (former guitarist) Ed King says, itís in the music. Thatís kind of a lot of the way I work anyway, is: How do we find the portrait inside the music? You want to start there and build your way out, as opposed to the behavioral stuff. The creative engine that drove this person ó how did that click? Music is always at the center of the stories. Iím surprised at the number of films I still see today about musicians that sideline the music.

Was there any temptation to delve into the last 30 years of Lynyrd Skynyrd? Or was this just a Ronnie-era story?

We had our parameters of the story pretty well marked out, and that was really what we wanted to do and what we were asked to do. We brought it up to date as much as we could in the film, but it is a legacy piece, right? Itís very much about the Ď70s, the origins, and the tragedy that ended it. Thereís enough richness there that we could have filled up two-plus hoursí worth. I didnít want to bite off too much more and dilute it anyway. Itís like a first chapter. There could be a second chapter that focuses on everything post-crash.

You canít talk or think about the band without thinking about the Confederate flag, or guns, or the American South. What do think the band represents in the American music canon?

Thereís no easy answer to that. Some would say theyíre just good olí boys from the South, flying the flag; theyíre proud of where theyíre from. Theyíre simple men; itís a simple story. But itís got unexpected complexity and depth when you start to pick at it. You can, I believe, understand our editorial perspective just by looking at how we put the film together.

But Skynyrd then and Skynyrd now? I see the Ď70s band as something quite different from what has evolved. What we did see when we encountered a current day fan base is that there are a lot of people who donít know the story. They know the hits, they have a kind of top-line understanding of it is, but some of them really have no idea who Ronnie Van Zant is. Which shocked me.

Contact Jay Cridlin at Follow @JayCridlin.