Gram Parsons - Fallen Angel Review
Like the story of Brian Jones, that of Gram Parsons is often spoken of in similar terms. Where Jones, towards the end of his life, stared blank-eyed out of pictures of the Stones, look carefully in the photographs from Villa Nellecote and the ghostly figure of Parsons can also be seen in the background. Most famously, though, he's there in a photograph with Keith Richards, the two of them playing guitar at the kitchen table while Mick Jagger looks on disapprovingly but, more commonly, he's little more than a presence behind the main cast of The Rolling Stones, Jagger, Richards, Watts and Wyman. Perhaps it's more a reflection of the loose months spent recording Exile On Main Street at Keith Richards' villa in the south of France than Parsons being barely there but there isn't a great deal of him in there and nothing in the list of credits on the album itself.
Of course, to see Gram Parsons as yet another tragic figure in the lives of The Rolling Stones in that era is to fall into a trap that many have before. The picture that's most frequently painted of Parsons is of quite a gentle man who was drawn into the circle of hard rock and hard drugs that surrounded Keith Richards and who, tainted by the experience, never quite recovered. The particular irony in this tale is in how Richards, the focus of al. of these stories, has survived while so many others, Parsons included, have not. That particular trail of bodies, whilst often used to celebrate Richards, tends to overlook the likes of Brian Jones and Gram Parsons and their individual contributions, one as a founding member of the Stones and the other as the founder of country rock.
Thankfully, this rather wonderful documentary does a fine job by Parsons, telling his own life story and that of his recordings without ever dismissing him as little more than a hanger-on to The Rolling Stones. Indeed, it does two things very well, almost definitively, and they area look at Parsons' family life as well as his recording career, two things that, quite unbelievably, most music documentaries fail to examine in any depth. Regarding the former, Fallen Angel is unafraid to describe Parsons' youth and his growing up in Winter Haven, Florida, where he had his head turned by his seeing Elvis perform in there in 1957. With his father, "Coon Dog" Connor, killing himself on the 23rd December 1958 and his mother, Avis, suffering from alcoholism, Gram had a difficult upbringing but one that flourished with music, even to his playing rock'n'roll in clubs whilst barely even in his teens. However, it was also a privileged life and when his mother died from cirrhosis of the liver, Gram and his sister were supported by trust funds that would last for the rest of their lives. And so Gram, like many rich kids before him, attended Harvard with the intention of studying theology.
It couldn't last, however, and Parsons soon dropped out in favour of playing music, forming the International Submarine Band during his absence from class. Leaving from the Est Coast, the International Submarine Band released one album, Safe At Home, which would draw the restless Parsons to the attention of Chris Hillman of The Byrds. By the time Parsons joined, the 12-string jangle of their first recordings and the psychedelia of Eight Miles High were behind The Byrds and allowing him to steer the group as he saw fit, Parsons took them to country rock and to Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, the only album The Byrds would record with him as a member. As they prepared to leave for a tour of South Africa, Gram Parsons left for England as a guest of The Rolling Stones.
Back in Los Angeles, Parsons got together with Chris Hillman once again to form The Flying Burrito Brothers, which saw them wearing Nudie suits emblazoned with pills, crucifixes and beautifully embroidered marijuana leaves. The two Burrito Brothers albums, The Gilded Palace Of Sin and Burrito Deluxe, were well-regarded - one much more than the other - but their release saw Parsons struggle with his addictions. A period in which he was committed to several dates saw him meet up with The Rolling Stones instead, during which Mick Jagger and Keith Richards told him to leave, to honour those gigs and to treat his audience with some respect. The Stones would repay Parsons' friendship by letting him record and release Wild Horses before they'd gotten around to it themselves but eventually, though, Chris Hillman would fire Parsons from what was effectively his own group, tiring of his friend's frequent absences from the band.
There was nothing left for Parsons to do but to go solo, which he did, stopping off in France to meet again with The Rolling Stones at Keith Richards' house in the south of France, Villa Nellcôte. This time, it was Anita Pallenberg who asked him to leave and returning home, Parsons married Gretchen Burrell before forming a professional relationship with Emmylou Harris as he set about recording his two solo albums and the last of his career, GP and Grievous Angel. But in spite of his touring of them, they were much less successful than the records being released by The Eagles (whose Bernie Leadon had been in The Flying Burrito Brothers for a time) and eventually Parsons settled back into a routine of drugs, alcohol and comforting Southern-styled food. He died on 19 September 1973 at the age of 26.
What happened next is an example of why Fallen Angel is a much better-than-average music documentary. Apparently, Parsons had confided in a friend of his, Phil Kaufman, that he did not want to be buried after his death, rather that he'd like to be cremated in the Joshua Tree National Park. After Parsons' death, Kaufman and a friend stole the body and drove it there, pouring petrol over it and setting it alight. This has become something of a rock legend and inspired Grand Theft Parsons with Johnny Knoxville playing Kaufman but rock legends have a habit of ignoring those who cared most about those they concern. In this case, we have, for far too long, heard only from Phil Kaufman. Fallen Angel gives a voice to Parsons' family and to his friends, all of whom lambast Kaufman's actions and his stupidity, asserting that Parsons was not fully cremated but that most of the body remained untouched and what was affected was simply badly mutilated by a drunken Kaufman. Of course, we hear from Kaufman in this feature but what remains in one's memory long after this is over is the testimony of his sister and the horror she felt at hearing not only about the death of her older brother but at the theft of his body and it being burned in the desert. As one who'd often heard the story of Parsons' cremation over the years, I genuinely didn't think that Fallen Angel would offer anything new on the subject but I was surprised, not only by how affecting it was to hear of the family's reaction but about how this rock legend was based on a pair of drunks who gave no consideration to the wishes of Parsons' family.
But better than that is the space Fallen Angel gives to the recording of the various albums that feature Gram Parsons. As one who'd gotten used to watching music documentaries that avoided any mention of albums, recording studios or songwriting, I was very impressed by director Gandulf Hennig's willingness to look at these aspects of Parsons' life in some detail. Of course, it ought to be obvious to anyone that a documentary on a musician would feature talk of the recording of music but, as an example, there's very little that's been documented on the recording of the six Doors albums within any feature on Jim Morrison, which tend to prefer the calfskin suit, the Wiccan wedding, the willy-waving and the likelihood of his disappearance. Equally, there's much that's been filmed on the career of The Rolling Stones but there's many times as much on the Redlands' drugs bust than on the recording of Beggars Banquet. Not so on Fallen Angel, which will be appreciated by anyone with an interest in not only the life of Gram Parsons but also the music.
And in that, this is a surprising feature, largely for not conforming to the VH1 Behind The Music tittle-tattle that's now come to represent the majority of music documentaries. Instead, this has been produced with a real love for its subject and is all the more impressive for it. Existing fans will find a new interpretation of events in Parsons' life whilst those new to him will find much to love about his music and the legacy that he left. As well as the albums that he made, Parsons couldn't really have asked for very much more and nor, I suspect, will those who have enjoyed this affectionate study of his life and legacy.
Fallen Angel has been anamorphically transferred in 1.78:1 and looks as one might expect a made-for-television documentary to. Certainly, the picture is sharp enough to be seen on a big television set and there's a steadiness to Hennig's shots that reduces the impact of digital noise but, equally, it isn't a particularly special release, looking good but never any better than that. There isn't, however, any real fault with the picture other than that it looks somewhat anonymous but perhaps one shouldn't expect any more from a first-time documentary filmmaker.
Warners have included two audio tracks with Fallen Angel, giving the viewer the option of DD2.0 or DD5.1. Whilst one might often appreciate the choice, there is little to separate them with there being little, and no obvious, use of the rear channels. It does, though, sound very good indeed, particularly the pieces of Parsons' music that is heard throughout the film. Finally, there are English, French and Italian subtitles throughout.
Interview... (15m44s): This features director Gandulf Hennig talking about how his love of The Byrds got him listening to Gram Parsons and the making of the film, explaining how years can be spent on a project such as this without ever actually rolling a camera such is the amount of time that it takes to agree terms with everyone who will be interviewed and who holds rights to footage. Hennig is interesting in dealing with a subject that could be so very, very dull and takes the time to
As well as the Interview, there is also a Biography of Gram Parsons that, in its tendency to stick to the facts, ought to give anyone a potted history of the life of Parsons, as well as a Discography and a Photo Gallery.
Unfortunately, Fallen Angel is a little light on extras and its commercial viability was doubtless hampered by BBC4 having already shown it this year but this is still a good release, suggesting that Gandulf Hennig may have a bright future ahead of him in music documentaries. All that I would now ask is that he have some interest in The Doors, which might allow us to get the Jim Morrison documentary that we're still waiting on.