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Gary Rossington said emotional documentary finally told Lynyrd Skynyrd's true story: 'I cried a few times'

Lynyrd Skynyrd members Gary Rossington, Rickey Medlocke, and Johnny Van Zant attend the <em>If I Leave Here Tomorrow</em> movie premiere at SXSW 2018 with Ronnie Van Zant’s widow, Judy. (Photo: R. Diamond/Getty Images for CMT)
Lynyrd Skynyrd members Gary Rossington, Rickey Medlocke, and Johnny Van Zant attend the If I Leave Here Tomorrow movie premiere at SXSW 2018 with Ronnie Van Zant’s widow, Judy. (Photo: R. Diamond/Getty Images for CMT)

Many films have been made about beleaguered Southern rock legends Lynyrd Skynyrd, but band founder Gary Rossington — who was the final surviving original member, and died March 5 at the age of 71 — hadn’t been too thrilled with the results. He and frontman Johnny Van Zant (younger brother of late original singer Ronnie) 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 during a Yahoo Entertainmemt interview that took place at 2018's South by Southwest festival, they said the CMT documentary If I Leave Here Tomorrow finally got their story right.

“All the other documentaries were negative, and they really didn’t show how when we started, we were brothers,” Rossington told 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 was an emotional roller coaster for Rossington, who served 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 confessed.

“I see all the memories and they’re alive; they’re like jumping beans in my brain. It’s weird,” Rossington continued. “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 said. “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 noted 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 said wistfully.

Burns was obviously not the only loss that Lynyrd Skynyrd 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 shrugged.

“We don’t turn our back on it,” Kijak explained. “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, made 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, said of the site crash.

“No. I’ve already been there, and I don’t want to go back,” said 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 stressed. “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 was 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 Rossington, who got into an auto accident a year before the plane crash that inspired Skynyrd’s hit “That Smell,” noted in 2018 that he had 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.” (The cause of Rossington's death has not yet been disclosed.)

But Rossington, who embarked on Skynyrd's “Last of the Street Survivors” farewell tour in May 2018, insisted that he didn’t feel unlucky. “I feel blessed to still be here, and that I got to go through any and all of it,” Rossington said. “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.”

“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,” Van Zant added. “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.”

Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1977. (Photo: David Alexander)
Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1977. (Photo: David Alexander)

Regarding any other major misconceptions about Lynyrd Skynyrd, Van Zant joked, “What, you mean like drinking or any of that? Well, all that shit’s true — and some of that is in the movie!” And as for what the late Skynyrd band members would have thought of If I Leave Here Tomorrow, he chuckled, “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 answered the latter question more seriously and open-endedly. “I don’t know what they would think,” he began, “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.”

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