2006 / Movie Reviews / Music

Review: Gram Parsons Documentary Tells Seminal Artist’s Rise, Fall

Film Focuses On Legends Surrounding ’60s County-Rock Purveyor

True or false, legends are an inextricable aspect of music history.

Photo: A&M Records

Photo: A&M Records

From Robert Johnson’s reported pact with the Devil to how much acid Jimi Hendrix could take to what Rod Stewart allegedly did what with whom, the colorful stories spread person-to-person or tell-all books make seemingly glittering lives even more fantastical.

For artists who never could climb above a cult following, the myths — particularly the juicy or bizarre ones — serve to keep nearly-forgotten names alive. The downside, however, is that they can also obscure their honest musical accomplishments.

For the little-known, county-rock icon Gram Parsons, the tales of his debauched, tight friendship with the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards and the seemingly ludicrous events surrounding his death and the theft of his body shroud a musician who was an engaging performer and gifted songwriter with a unique musical perspective.

A new, excellent BBC documentary, “Gram Parsons — Fallen Angel,” takes on the finer points of the Parsons legend. It lovingly wallows on the musical high points of his few years on the rock scene and frankly shows how he un-glamorously squandered his music and life through laziness and incessant substance abuse. A DVD of the flick has just landed on store shelves.

The film, which is an hour and 38 minutes long, was directed by Gandulf Hennig and supervised by musician/writer and longtime Parsons fan Sid Griffin. Combining eyewitness reminiscences, home movies, photos and rare concert footage (only some of which appears to be bootleg quality), the documentary’s thesis was that Parsons was a musical prophet who saw no barriers between genres, blending elements of county, folk, early rock ‘n’ roll and soul into his music. He led the seminal Flying Burrito Brothers, was a onetime member of the Byrds, discovered Emmylou Harris and tutored Richards on country music during the Stones’ golden age, only to die at the age of 26 from drink and drugs.

While Bob Dylan and the Band had already recorded their own experiments with country and folk music on “The Basement Tapes” a year before Parsons began making waves with the Byrds, he has become the subgenre’s patron saint — albeit a nearly ignored one. Ever striving to keep his demons at bay, Parsons could only watch as the Eagles stole his creative thunder with a more urbane, radio-ready form of country rock that subsequently transformed them into one of rock’s premier groups. The film restates this premise.

The documentary’s release comes at an ideal time. Parsons’ influence has endured in some circles, but his profile has likely never been higher than it is now. The music that he long promulgated continues to be a vibrant if dogmatic subculture beneath mainstream rock and country.

Meanwhile, the infamous events surrounding his death and the theft and burning of his corpse by one of his buddies was the subject of “Grand Theft Parsons, “a 2003 independent film starring Johnny Knoxville. Parsons’ daughter Polly assembled a disappointing tribute concert (later released on DVD) that did manage to lure Richards, Norah Jones, Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle among others, but few noteworthy performances. And in conjunction with the release of this new DVD, Rhino Records is releasing a box set called “The Complete Reprise Sessions,” which catalogs his early ’70s solo career.

To tell Parsons’ tale, the film brandishes an impressive list of frank interviews that effortless handoff the story as it glides along. It has former bandmates (Harris, the Byrds’ Chris Hillman, ex-Eagles guitarist Bernie Leadon), famous friends (Richards, Pamela Des Barres, a groupie legend and author) and those whom Parsons influenced (Dwight Yoakam, R.E.M.’s Peter Buck). But it is the clips with his family — Parsons’ widow, his daughter, various step and half siblings as well family friends — that prove to be some of the most heartfelt and cuttingly personal. For this fact alone, Henning deserves credit. He’s brave to devote significant screen time to people who knew the man off the stage as opposed to just surrendering the story to those names that will attract attention.

Griffin steers the film so as to cover all the highlights and answer nearly all the key questions that pop up in Parson’s story. It swiftly follows Parsons’ early years in the South as the child of a wealthy citrus magnate family. Raised in privilege but scarred by dysfunction and alcoholism, Parsons became an Elvis fan and later, a prep-school folkie. By college, he developed a fascination with country-music icons like George Jones and Buck Owens. After moving out West, he joined the always-opportunistic Byrds and essentially hijacked them to record 1968’s “Sweetheart Of The Rodeo,” a full-blown country record. This change of tune was just as pop music was looking for an antidote to psychedelia.

Parsons quickly took his musical vision one step further with his own country-rock act, the Burrito Brothers, which he formed with ex-Byrd Hillman the following year. The band recorded one pivotal album, “The Gilded Palace Of Sin,” but then slowly crumbled under the weight of Parsons’ growing chemical dependence and general disinterest. Hennig and Griffin dwell on the inspiration and development of some of the band’s greatest songs, but without slowing the film’s pace to cater to only the super fans’ obscure questions.

The movie also focuses significant time on Parsons’ famous friendship with Richards, which formed during the end of his Byrds tenure and continued throughout the Burritos. Parsons often gets credit for mentoring the guitarist in the nuances of country music, which resulted in the country-ish slant found throughout the Rolling Stones’ run of great albums, like “Beggars Banquet,” “Let It Bleed, “Sticky Fingers” and “Exile On Main Street.” While an withered-looking Richards says on camera that Parson was “intimately” involved in their circle as the band recorded the much-lionized “Exile” in southern France, he stops short of confirming rumors that Parsons co-wrote anything or made an appearance on vinyl.

The film follows along as Parsons spun out of Richards’ orbit and tried to restart his career by teaming with the unknown Harris as singing partner for two glossy solo albums. But, the film chronicles how he sank ever deeper into hardcore drug abuse and died of an apparent overdose in September 1973.

The film also takes a balanced approach to the story of how Parsons’ friend and road manager Phil Kaufman stole his body after his death and then attempted to cremate him in the desert of Joshua Tree National Park in California. While the flamboyant Kaufman tells the camera that he was lovingly completing a pact made with his friend, we can also hear from family members and friends as they vent their own misgivings and the subsequent pain they experienced about the whole gossip-filled incident.

The film also has a surprisingly original take on Parsons’ problems with drugs and alcohol. Rather that just blaming it all on the familiar bogey of rock-star excess, Hennig and Griffin ground Parsons’ recurring battles by tracing his parents and stepfather’s alleged battles with the bottle. The film suggests Parsons’ addictions didn’t start with life backstage but back at home.

While one could summarize the documentary as a classic cautionary tale in its unflinching look at Parsons’ destructive side, its emphasis on his triumphs as well as the inclusion of so many people speaking passionately about him reaffirms the importance of Parsons’ life and the enduring power of his art. His story is one of promise offered but left unfulfilled. As such, it neatly bolsters arguments that Parsons was one of rock’s lost visionaries.

As it turns out, this legend appears to be true.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2006 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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