SXSW review: ‘Sheryl’ looks at the highs and lows of a rock star

Documentary about Crow is largely a tribute, but the struggles are real


Sheryl Crow is 60 years old, so it doesn’t seem too early to have a documentary about her extraordinary life. And if you don’t like Crow and her music, you don’t have to watch. But you’ll be missing out on a good story.

The simply titled “Sheryl,” from director Amy Scott, premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival during its first weekend, and Crow showed up for an afterparty and concert at Antone’s, to a packed crowd.

So this is not a swan-song type of documentary. She’s still rocking, and still fighting a lot of “isms,” including sexism and ageism as well as frequent bouts of depression and one serious bout with breast cancer.

The Missouri native started playing piano at an early age and appeared to be headed toward a life of teaching piano and going to a lot of church meetings after getting a degree in music performance from the University of Missouri. Instead, she switched gears and moved to L.A., without a clue, as she readily acknowledges.

She did odd jobs, became a waitress and pestered many folks with her cassette tapes, hoping to get a lucky break. And then she got it: She had an audition to be a backup singer for a Michael Jackson tour and was signed up, eventually accompanying the King of Pop to Japan. That’s where she met Scooter Weintraub, her longtime manager and eventual go-to guy when she sank into depression.

It’s funny now, knowing what we know about Jackson’s private life, but the tabloids proclaimed that Jackson and Crow were a romantic couple. For her part, Crow thinks the stories might have been planted by the Jackson entourage and says she always thought the young boys who accompanied Jackson on the tour led to an odd vibe. Um, yeah.

At the same time, a manager for Jackson started putting the moves on Crow and promising her things if she would do things. This led to Crow’s penning of the sexual-harassment song, “What I Can Do for You.”

After the tour, Crow joined what became known as the Tuesday Night Music Club, with Kevin Gilbert and Bill Bottrell, and this led to her first album, featuring the hit “Leaving Las Vegas.” The documentary shows how Crow appeared on the David Letterman Show and failed to credit some key folks in the writing of the song. She was nervous. It was her first TV appearance. But she was cast as an ungrateful rising star.

A pattern began to emerge in Crow’s life. She would meet a group of collaborators, then move on, with some of the group coming along for the journey. And after the success of her first album, she moved to New Orleans, where she met Trina Shoemaker, an engineer who became a lifelong friend and collaborator.

While there Crow took on a number of roles on the second album, much like Prince did with his music. She not only wrote the songs and performed them, but she also produced the record.

As the story of Crow’s artistic journey unfolds, a rather remarkable cast of characters pops up on screen to sing Crow’s praises. They include Keith Richards, Brandi Carlile, Jason Isbell, Emmylou Harris, Joe Walsh and Laura Darn, who became quite close to Crow when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Dern, an award-winning actress whose parents are Hollywood celebrities, says she was surprised by all the pressure that Crow faced. “Being an iconic rock star is a whole other thing,” she says at one point.

During this period, Crow was living in New York and making a record at a studio in the meatpacking industry area. That led to her third album, “The Globe Sessions.”

Today, Crow is living in Nashville, where she is raising two adopted sons. At one point, it looked like she was going to make a home in Austin with bicyclist Lance Armstrong, but that relationship got quite rocky when allegations of Armstrong’s cheating and doping became a public relations nightmare.

Oddly, the documentary does not directly address another longtime relationship with Texas actor Owen Wilson.

The documentary ends on a high note, with Crow playing a 4 p.m. gig at Bonnaroo and thinking that she must be regarded as a “legacy artist” and no longer a headliner since she has a less-than-stellar time slot. And then she goes out on a stage, and the crowd is huge. And as she sings “If It Makes You Happy,” the crowd sings the chorus with her.

It’s a touching moment in what turns out to be a very touching documentary.

“Sheryl” screens again at SXSW at 4 p.m. March 19 and the Zach Theatre. Showtime will be screening the documentary on TV later this year.

Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy is a former movies editor for The Dallas Morning News and Austin American-Statesman.

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