They make a big deal about songwriting in Nashville. The country music industry throws parties when a song hits Number One, banners crowing about chart success are staked in the yards of the publishing offices lining Music Row, and the craft itself is spoken about in hushed, reverent tones — even if that mystical art is sometimes just three dudes in a room trying to find a new word to rhyme with “beer.”
But some songwriters do in fact “brush the cheek of God,” as Tom Douglas describes the elusive goal in the superb new film Love, Tom. (It begins streaming February 24th on Paramount+.) Douglas is one of those divinely touched craftsmen, even if he’s too modest to admit it outright on camera. He opens up about nearly everything else, though, over the course of the movie’s 56 minutes: his father’s pill addiction and subsequent death; the life-changing moment a young Douglas saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan; an unexpected crisis of faith; and his own failures and frustrations in Nashville.
It’s the frustrations of another nameless songwriter that give the film — a direct-to-camera, fourth-wall-smashing marvel — its structure. Directed by Michael Lennox (Derry Girls) and written by Douglas and his son Tommy Douglas, Love, Tom opens with the titular writer fielding correspondence from a discouraged tunesmith. “Not too long ago I received a letter; a letter from a desperate young songwriter asking for advice,” Douglas recounts. From there, the film is off and running. Or walking, to be precise.
The camera follows Douglas as he ambles down his front steps, across his vast rural Tennessee property, through a cornfield, and into the driver’s seat of his vintage Chevy pickup. All the while, he’s talking, explaining with poetic flourish the art of songwriting as it relates to his own life. “They say you write about what you know,” he says. “I’m telling you my story not because it’s the best one, it’s just the one that I know the best.”
Douglas relays his life’s arc in rich detail — from his mom’s vegetable soup that he ate while watching the Beatles to the soup-stained pajamas worn by his declining father — as he drives his truck, stops to order coffee and pump gas, and visit Nashville landmarks (like the Bluebird Cafe) that are important to him.
In between his oration, Douglas pauses to perform some of his songs, often in unexpected settings. He sings “I Run to You,” cut by Lady A, in the rain on a sidewalk; croons “My Little Girl,” recorded by Tim McGraw, in a bookstore; and, in the showstopper, quietly enters the Ryman Auditorium to play his biggest hit, Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me,” on a piano in the empty former church.
The origin of “The House That Built Me” is a high point of Love, Tom, with Douglas recalling how his co-writer Allen Shamblin spoke those five words to him over breakfast in the summer of 2002. At that moment, he says, “the earth tilted on its axis, the forks were suspended in mid-air, the water froze in the pitcher — that’s the power of a good idea.” Douglas made Shamblin swear he wouldn’t repeat the title again until they could convene in a writing room. When they did, the result was a Grammy nomination for Song of the Year.
Watching the film, it’s hard not to imagine it being performed live onstage in Nashville as a one-man show, with the stars who made Douglas’ songs famous dropping by to sing them. The producers (the Douglases, Lennox, Austin Fish, and Jason Owen) are crazy if they’re not already plotting to make that happen.
But by the end of Love, Tom, night has fallen and Douglas is back at his farmhouse. His pickup’s headlights illuminate the porch where he began his day and he tees up the final line that reminds you this whole thing started out as a letter.
Those familiar with Nashville’s highways and byways might argue that Douglas’ road trip from home and back again was a circuitous one, as geographically accurate as Rocky’s run through Philly. But that’d be missing the movie’s message. Love, Tom isn’t about the route that a song — or your life — might take. It’s about what you learn along the way. And it’s about where you end up.