We could sit here and wax philosophical all day about the enduring legacy of Lynyrd Skynyrd, about their meteoric rise to southern rock royalty in the 70s, about the tragedy of lives and careers cut short, or about their continued relevance on music culture. To do so, however, would be to miss the point. Lynyrd Skynyrd is not a band to dissect; Lynyrd Skynyrd is a band to feel.
What If I Leave Here Tomorrow: A Film About Lynyrd Skynyrd does best is capture that Skynyrd feel. Director Stephen Kijak (We Are X) doesn’t lace his chronicle of Skynyrd with pretension or airs. Like the band itself, the film is perfectly raw, as if birthed from some rugged swampland in Florida to tell us how it really was, and how it continues to be.
Using a mix of archival footage and images mixed with modern interviews, If I Leave Here Tomorrow is as close to a perfect chronicling of them Jacksonville boys as we could hope. It’s a fascinating and intimate look at the lives and legacies of a band whose legacy is as oddly relevant today as it ever was. Hardcore fans might not get anything new out of the film—though as a repository of information its existence is priceless—but even casual or non-fans will find something new to appreciate about a band that’s too easily dismissed in today’s climate of music snobbery.
Largely focused on the tragically short life of Ronnie van Zant, we are taken through the entire career of Lynyrd Skynyrd from class skipping adolescents who just wanted to rock out and have fun to rock and roll megastars. Theirs feels like a path closed to today’s budding young musicians. The era of hard work and grit paying off with stardom feels, in some ways, over. Today, you need a hook. Something to grab the attention of an audience whose attentions are constantly being fought over from all angles.
The only hook Skynyrd needed was a dirty riff. Armed with little else, Skynyrd took over the world. Seeing it all laid out in chronological order is fascinating to watch. It’s inspiring, really, to see a band who, as Ronnie himself put it, writes “common songs for common people” make good for the people who loved them. Who, largely, still love them.
As tempting as it might be to dismiss the band for being purveyors of southern stereotypes—the Confederate Flag is, after all, closely associated with Lynyrd Skynyrd—some might be surprised to hear the politics of their rock heroes. The film leans into the politics and southern stereotypes, letting the band address some of the preconceptions you might have about them. They make no bones about their support for gun control (no real surprise given their hit, “Mr. Saturday Night Special”) or, even, their growing remorse over their use of the flag.
Time, it seems, has taught them a few things about the flag. “It does offend,” they admit. And while that was never their intent, they claim to recognize why they shouldn’t perpetuate its continued use today. That might piss a few fans off but, as Gary Rossington posits elsewhere in the film, “it’s hard to get to the top but it’s harder to stay.”
There’s an air of sadness watching the film, however. The tragic plane crash looms over the film like a dark cloud in much the same way that the opening verses of “Freebird” has a different meaning today, it’s difficult to watch Ronnie and the boys in happier times. As with so much of the rest of the film, If I Leave Here Tomorrow doesn’t shy away from the tragedy. The band offers moving and harrowing revelations about that fateful day that will be hard to watch for some people (I’m not even a big fan and I still welled up a bit).
But then, it’s also hard to stay sad when listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd. The love they felt—for each other, for their music—comes through in every note they play. What’s perhaps most remarkable about the enduring legacy of the band is how they have since refused to let themselves be defined by the tragedy that broke them. We may lose our closest friends and family, or we might face more than our share of heartbreak. But just as life goes on, the rock will always roll.
If I Leave Here Tomorrow captures all of that beautifully. It stands as a stunning tribute and fascinating chronicle of one of the most important and misunderstood bands in rock history. Like the band itself, it’s simple and without airs. Whether you’re a long time fan or detractor of Lynyrd Skynyrd, you might just find that you see the band in an entirely new light after watching the film.