Gram Remembered in "Angel"

New documentary offers look at troubled country rock icon

By |
Fallen Angel, German-born director Gandulf Hennig's documentary about the late country/rock icon Gram Parsons, made its U.S. debut at the Nashville Film Festival this month.

The capacity crowd at the screening was a warmer greeting than Hennig received when he first got the itch to make the film twelve years ago. "Of course," he says, "everybody laughed at me in Europe. 'Gram who?'"

A musician himself, Hennig was drawn to Parsons music after hearing his "Hot Burrito No. 1." "I got infected mainly by Gram's voice," he says. "His music has been a great inspiration ever since. Even if you want to, you can't ignore that circumstances that have added to his legend. But that does not make his musical legacy any less important. However, it makes the film interesting to other audiences than just music buffs."

Those circumstances include Parsons death of a drug and alcohol overdose in September 1973 at age twenty-six, and the subsequent theft of his body by manager Phil Kaufman, who tried to torch Parsons' corpse at California's Joshua Tree State Park, part of a bizarre cremation pact between the two.

Kaufman and Parsons' daughter Polly were both on hand for the film's premiere. "The film is so well-organized and thoroughly documented," says Polly, a staunch promoter of her father's musical legacy. "It held very true to his life and emphasized the music. Gandulf and his team did a remarkable job through a lot of hard work."

The documentary meticulously traces Parsons' early days -- from his upper-class Georgia upbringing and the dramatic death of both parents (his father committed suicide when he was twelve, his mother died of alcohol poisoning the day he graduated from high school), to his exploration of the Sixties Boston folk scene while he briefly attended Harvard, and his subsequent life-altering discovery of country music.

Employing a tapestry of rare footage, stellar-quality background music, and a revealing series of interviews with family and musical friends, Hennig effectively transitions from those early days to Parsons' burgeoning creativity on the Los Angeles scene -- he fell in with the Byrds and, later, the Flying Burrito Brothers -- where he cultivated his eclectic musical ideals, and a live-hard-die-young lifestyle.

During one scene, Keith Richards nostalgically cringes at the mention of Parsons' passing, while evoking his broken sentiment that he and his friend (Parsons lived with Richards during the Rolling Stones' sessions for Exile on Main Street) would grow old making great music together. Their collaboration would never quite come to fruition.

The most famous name and face in Fallen Angel, Richards was actually one of the last interviews that Hennig secured. According to Polly Parsons, she and Richards weren't approached until Hennig's project was five years in the works. "This spoke volumes to me because it showed that he had total faith in achieving his goal," she says, "and he was going to make the film with or without a 'heavy hitter' like Keith to lend it credibility."

In addition to the insightful probing of Richards, Fallen Angel includes interviews with Parsons' wife Gretchen, his half-sister Diane, Kaufman and bandmates and musical collaborators including Chris Hillman, Bernie Leadon, "Sneeky" Pete Kleinow, John Nuese and Emmylou Harris, who afford the documentary an intimate development.

"In the beginning it was not easy to get their [friends and family] cooperation," Hennig says. "And in a way it was harder to actually make these interviews once they agreed to contribute. These people were still deeply hurt by the loss of Gram, especially under the given circumstances, and by all the weird stuff that has been written about it. Meeting with Gram's family was a big lecture for me, it changed the course of Fallen Angel completely."

Hennig began to seek funding for the film six years ago and found partners in a large German film commission, a German television station, and finally the influential BBC in the U.K. Shooting was done mainly in California, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, and in various hotel rooms in London and New York between March and November 2003.

"It was essential to shoot all the interviews on location," insists Hennig. "In order to get a realistic idea of who Gram Parsons was, we had to go to Waycross, Georgia [where he grew up] and Winter Haven, Florida [where he was born]. And, of course, to L.A. and to Joshua Tree."

The impact of Parsons' indelible musical style and influence is the driving force behind Hennig's desire to bring the story to the screen, even surrounded by the inevitable draw of the fabled rock & roll scenario of indulgence and untimely death, Fallen Angel helps preserve the vital body of work that he produced during such a short time. That same draw, Parsons music rather than his tragic life, is the impetus behind Return to Sin City, a two-night tribute to Parsons set for July 9th and 10th in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, with Norah Jones, Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle among the performers.

The film's delicate tone has made Hennig somewhat protective of it. He's received several offers from distributors, but hasn't yet inked a deal. "I am proud of what we've done with Fallen Angel," he says, "and we'd rather take our time and look for the right partner instead of looking for a fast buck."

x