It’s one of rock & roll’s great mythologies: the day Phil Kaufman stole Gram Parsons’ body, keeping a promise to give his friend a fiery desert funeral.
Thirty-one years later, the story hits the silver screen. Jackass‘ Johnny Knoxville makes a striking leading-man debut in Grand Theft Parsons, which also stars Michael Shannon, Christina Applegate and Robert Forster. The film, which had its American premiere at Sundance earlier this year opens Friday in New York City, Los Angeles, Irvine and Pasadena.
“It takes a jackass to play one,” quips Kaufman, a longtime rock & roll road manager — his autobiography was titled Road Mangler Deluxe — who first met Parsons when both were hanging with the Rolling Stones.
Parsons, who died of a drug overdose in 1973 at the age of twenty-six, was a kindred spirit to Keith Richards. He was a short-lived member of the Byrds and — via the Flying Burrito Brothers and two records with Emmylou Harris — a founding father of alt-country. He and Kaufman made their pact at a traditional Catholic funeral for the Byrds’ Clarence White. Both men agreed they wouldn’t want to go like that.
Thus Kaufman and a hippie buddy set out on an odyssey that was part-Kerouac, part Weekend at Bernie’s. Traveling in a borrowed hearse, the duo eluded police and Parsons’ family all the way to a campfire cremation at Cap Rock, in what is now Joshua Tree National Park.
“It’s one of those stories that you don’t need to change, because it was such a fantastic journey,” says screenwriter Jeremy Drysdale, an Englishman who has also adapted former Sex Pistol John Lydon’s autobiography (Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs) for an upcoming biopic. “I’d like to be able to pretend that I sprinkled fairy dust on it, but all I did was pretty much tell it as it happened.”
First Drysdale had to get permission. Over the years, Kaufman had deflected countless inquiries from Hollywood. But when this nice British fellow came all the way to Nashville and camped out on his lawn for three days, he agreed to let Drysdale have a shot.
“It took an English writer and two Irishman [director Jack Caffrey and producer Frank Mannion] to make the film, just like the old jazz guys had to go to Paris to be appreciated,” Kaufman says.
Caffrey filmed the whole thing in three-plus weeks, making stops at the actual LAX hangar where Kaufman pulled the heist as well as the Joshua Tree Inn room where Parsons died. Kaufman, who served as an associate producer and also has a cameo, outfitted Knoxville in his very own “Sin City” denim jacket, and also lent the film his 1966 Harley trike. Four Parsons songs lend pathos to the soundtrack, which also includes “Blood Brothers” from the ordinarily cinema-shy Bruce Springsteen.
“It’s a movie about friendship and loyalty and decency,” says Drysdale. “Phil likes to be quite glib about these things, but I think his motivation, pure and simple, is he wanted to do the right thing, even though it would do him no good.”
“Gram is still dead, and we expect him to continue,” notes the Road Mangler. “Finally, something he can stick to.”