Many films have been made about beleaguered Southern rock legends Lynyrd Skynyrd, but lone surviving band founder Gary Rossington and current frontman Johnny Van Zant (younger brother of late original singer Ronnie) haven’t been too thrilled with the results. They disavowed Jake Tapper’s 2002 VH1 special Uncivil War, which focused on the group’s infighting, and in 2017 they even sued one ex-bandmate, Artimus Pyle, over his plans to make a Skynyrd biopic that would focus on the tragic 1977 plane crash that killed several Skynyrd members. But they say the CMT documentary If I Leave Here Tomorrow, which just made its premiere at this year’s South by Southwest festival, finally gets their story right.
“All the other documentaries were negative, and they really didn’t show how when we started, we were brothers,” Rossington tells Yahoo Entertainment. “We’d die for each other. We grew up together, you know? We were so happy, and it was a family. [Other films] made it sound like we were all mad at each other. It wasn’t like that at all.”
Watching If I Leave Here Tomorrow’s depiction of the band members’ onetime tight bond has been an emotional roller coaster for Rossington, who serves as the primary narrator of the film. “There’s a part at the beginning when [on/off Skynyrd bassist and guitarist] Ed King is talking about our song ‘Need All My Friends.’ Then it shows us, me and Ronnie looking right at each other, and it was like, all my friends are dead and gone. I just went, ‘Oh, my God.’ It’s just real sentimental to me,” he says.
“I see all the memories and they’re alive; they’re like jumping beans in my brain. It’s weird,” Rossington continues. “I won’t be shy to say I cried a few times — you can’t not, if you were part of it, you know? My daughters were all crying. They made me cry: ‘You never told us about this stuff, Daddy!’”
The documentary’s director, Stephen Kijak (We Are X, Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, Stones in Exile), made sure to focus on the good times as well as the bad, telling Skynyrd’s colorful origin story through rare interviews and never-before-seen archival footage. “Actually, this is something, funnily enough, that came from Artimus,” Kijak tells Yahoo. “One of the things he asked me to do when we told the story is, ‘Make sure everyone knows how goddamn funny they were.’ The happier times, the wilder times — they were just funny as hell.” Kijak notes that drummer Bob Burns, who died in a 2015 car accident, “practically runs away with the whole movie.”
“Bob was funny. Man, I loved him so much,” Rossington says wistfully.
Burns is obviously not the only loss that Lynyrd Skynyrd have suffered. Band members Steve Gaines, Cassie Gaines, and Ronnie Van Zant all died in the above-mentioned plane crash that took place in Gillsburg, Miss., on Oct. 20, 1977, just three days after Skynyrd released their fifth album, Street Survivors. There was no way for If I Leave Here Tomorrow to avoid that major, if horrific, chapter of the band’s saga. “Hey, that’s part of it, man,” Rossington shrugs.
“We don’t turn our back on it,” Kijak explains. “You kind of start out [the film] knowing it happened, and in the middle of the movie we actually visit the crash with a guy that was there to help with the rescue effort.”
The Skynyrd members, however, make it clear that they — understandably — had zero interest in taking part in that specific scene. “No. I’m never going to go there,” Johnny Van Zant, who took over lead vocal duties for Skynyrd in 1987, says of the site crash. “No. I’ve already been there, and I don’t want to go back,” says Rossington (who broke his arms, legs, wrists, ankles, and pelvis in the accident), shaking his head.
“But we don’t try to sensationalize or sentimentalize [the plane crash tragedy],” Kijak stresses. “It’s a fact, it happened, but what you come out with on the other side, we hope, is celebration and the inspiration that these guys left behind and are still carrying on.”
Some have claimed that Lynyrd Skynyrd is the unluckiest band of all time. Along with the deaths of Ronnie Van Zant, the Gaines siblings, and Bob Burns, guitarist Allen Collins was paralyzed in a 1986 car accident and died at age 37 in 1990. Bassist Leon Wilkeson died of chronic liver disease at age 49, and keyboardist Billy Powell also died young, at age 56, of an apparent heart attack. And 66-year-old Rossington, who got into an auto accident a year before the plane crash that inspired Skynyrd’s hit “That Smell,” notes that he now has a “lot of medical stuff. I’ve got a bad heart, and had heart surgery a few times, and a lot of stents — just unhealthy, and not just all from rock ’n’ roll. That’s the way my genes are, I guess.”
But Rossington and Van Zant, who will embark on their “Last of the Street Survivors” farewell tour this May, say they don’t feel unlucky. “I feel blessed to still be here, and that I got to go through any and all of it,” Rossington asserts. “We let life pick us up and shake us and squeeze us, and we tasted it, so I’m happy. I don’t think we’re ‘cursed’ at all.”
“No, not at all,” Van Zant adds. “I think you take any big family out here — go ahead, take a poll — and there’s going to be death, there’s going to be tragedy. Gregg Allman said it best. He said, ‘If you live long enough, you’re going to experience tragedy and triumphs.’ That’s what Lynyrd Skynyrd’s been, and what Allman’s been too. It wouldn’t be Lynyrd Skynyrd without that, you know? That’s God’s will and His way, and that’s why we’re sitting here today.”
Regarding any other major misconceptions about Lynyrd Skynyrd, Van Zant jokes, “What, you mean like drinking or any of that? Well, all that s***’s true — and some of that is in the movie!” And as for what the late Skynyrd band members would think of If I Leave Here Tomorrow, he chuckles, “I think they’d like this one. With some other [films], like we said, they’d probably be looking for the director’s and producer’s ass! They’d be hunting them down.”
Rossington answers the latter question more seriously and open-endedly. “I don’t know what they would think,” he begins, “except that their songs and their music and Ronnie’s lyrics are still out there, meaning something and being played. That’s what we wanted when we started, when we were 15. We wanted to be a band like the Beatles and make the right music and have people hear it. So they’d be happy that we’re doing this. It’s all over in a minute.”
Read more from Yahoo Entertainment:
- The legacy of Lynyrd Skynyrd, 40 years after plane crash tragedy
- Judge blocks former Lynyrd Skynyrd drummer’s planned biopic
- Lynyrd Skynyrd announce farewell tour