Fallen Angel: Gram Parsons

My previous knowledge of singer Gram Parsons mainly consisted of the fact that he was a mentor and huge influence to Emmylou Harris, and is considered by many to be the father of “alternative country” music. After seeing the documentary Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel, I now know much about the man, but still feel a bit left out as far as knowing about his art.
Our Rating

Genre(s): Documentary, Music

Director: Gandulf Hennig

Actors: Peter Buck, Gretchen Parsons Carpenter, Elvis Costello

Year: 2004

MPAA Rating: G

Country: UK, Germany

From what I learned from the film, Gram Parsons was a handsome and charming trust-fund baby (from an admittedly fucked-up family), who was lucky enough to pursue music full time, never worrying about paying the bills or holding a real job. Stories by his former Flying Burrito Brothers bandmates tell about a “genius” of an artist throwing his talent away by never practicing, sabotaging performances by showing up drunk or high, and alienating his bandmates by blowing money on things like limos and clothes, when only a handful of people turned out to see them at a club. But he wrote the songs and had the voice that made the young girls cry. He left a short, but very influential musical legacy through his work with the Burritos and The Byrds, as well as his solo work—and perhaps even a little of his style rubbed off on the Rolling Stones.

Part of his mystical legacy obviously stems in part from his sensational death in 1973. Much was made of his famous country-and-western Nudie suit, embroidered with all of the elements of his death: drugs, women, and especially fire. Among the many interviewees is Phil Kaufman, his ex-“manager”, a rowdy partier that sounds like he could have only been a bad influence on Parsons. After Parsons died at age 26 in a hotel in the Joshua Tree desert, Kaufman and a pal stole Parsons’ body from the LA airport tarmac, where it was on its way to his remaining family in Louisiana, took it back to Joshua Tree and made an inept attempt to burn it. This is morbidly fascinating, and it is interesting to hear Kaufman’s crowing version of his deed, compared to the hurt that it caused to Parsons’ remaining family and wife, who are also interviewed.

Though such stories tell a lot about the man, they tell very little about his music. As a fan of alt-country, I wanted to hear more about Parsons’ art, and how he supposedly influenced modern artists, including more about his pairing with Emmylou Harris. But the performance segments in the film are edited short, and are too few and far between. Having his music playing in the background during interview segments doesn’t do it service, and hearing people talk about how he was a “musical genius” doesn’t really say much about the music itself.

The DVD release would have been the perfect opportunity to include as extras the complete versions of the performances included in the movie, even those Super 8 home movies without sound. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one that was frustrated by the truncated songs in the film, especially the campy studio performance of “Hot Burrito #1” complete with Gram’s dramatic putting-on and taking-off of huge aviator sunglasses while he crooned to the camera. The extras, as they are, are perfunctory, with an interview with director Gandulf Hennig, a text biography and discography, and a small photo album (which is also glaringly missing the extremely interesting photos of Gram and Keith Richards together in France that were featured in the film). Maybe eventually the full performance videos will be released for the fans. Until then Fallen Angel will probably appeal mainly to established fans of Gram Parsons.


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