Born into Southern money and a rather troubled family life Gram Parsons had both the best and the worst in life right from the beginning. Being a talented musician who was supported by his family he parlayed his skills, left Harvard after on semester and headed for California to start making music before things came crashing down.
For those who don't know Gram Parsons was an alt-country [or country rock] rock 'n roll musician who's flamed burned bright for too short a time before he died of a drug overdose in 1975 at the young age of 26. Along with that other group of hallowed musicians who died too young - such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison - Parsons created some fine music. But where each of the others hit their stride early and became legends before death Parsons was just on the cusp of greatness.
He played in the International Submarine Band, The Byrds – where he lent his sound to their "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" album, The Flying Burrito Brothers. He is probably most well known for his two solo albums, which included fabulous duos with Emmylou Harris.
Seven years in the making by Gandulf Hennig and Sid Griffin Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel is to date the definitive documentary on Gram. But it is also a refreshingly sober look at his life. The filmmakers avoid the E! expose treatment and other such underhanded TV exploitative tactics to over-hype or oversimplify Gram's demise.
The filmmakers do get into Gram's bad boy behavior and his penchant for opportunism and his somewhat odd fawning of Keith Richards and the Stones but they stick with facts rather than speculation. They also try to focus on Gram's life and music rather than try to explain what may have led to him becoming an addict and ultimately an overdose victim. Some interviewees surmise that maybe Gram had a death wish, or maybe he was distraught by his childhood or by the death of other members of his family. But for the most part the filmmakers do not explore this in any deep psychological way. They also don't try to give his life an obvious destiny trap. I prefer it this way because it feels more honest; but others may want more dirt or some kind of conspiratorial angle.
Interviews are done with many including fellow musicians and friends like Keith Richards, Emmylou Harris, Chris Hillman, James Burton, as well as admirers like Peter Buck and Dwight Yoakam. But it is the interviews with family members who help set the record straight and keep the film from veering off into the kind of film some may hope to see.
Interspersed throughout are a lot of good period footage and photos along with a few concert footage and some early music videos [well before MTV]. There is also plenty of fine music that fills out the soundtrack.
Only toward the end when the filmmakers interview Phil Kaufmann - and follow him out to Joshua Tree - does the documentary get into rather dark and disturbing waters. If you know what happened after Gram died there is no need to reiterate it; if you don't then watch the documentary. For some, the handling of his death added to his legend. But I agree with Emmylou Harris that Gram should be remembered for his music not his death. And the filmmakers seem to respect that above all.
Shot in video and presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen it looks great. The image is sharp and clear. The vintage homemade footage is dark, grainy, out-of-focus and jarring – but it only adds to the legend and gives it a veneer.
Audio choices are in 2.0 stereo or 5.1 Dolby Digital surround. The quality is good and the each voice can be heard clearly. The 5.1 has a bit fuller sound for obvious reasons but the music has not been restored for such sound so it is not necessarily better than the 2.0.
There is a good 14 minute interview with Gandulf Hennig where he talks about the time and effort it took make it all work.
Gram Parsons Fallen Angel will probably become the definitive documentary on Gram's short but musical and eventful life. The filmmakers keep it all pretty straight forward but it is not boring and has plenty of good touches and fine editing.