Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel (2004) Poster

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Beautiful story, heartbreakingly told, with a few technical weaknesses
zwirnm12 January 2005
Among the most fascinating and ultimately saddest stories in American popular music is the brief life and odd afterlife of Gram Parsons, one-time Byrd, Burrito Brother, quasi-Rolling Stone and inventor of the "cosmic American music" that became alt-country or Americana after his death. Fallen Angel: Gram Parsons, a UK-Germany television production that screened as part of the Portland Reel Music festival, is a feature-length documentary that explores Parsons' life and musical legacy with a host of the musicians and family members who knew him best. Director Gandulf Hennig — a small and hyperactive German — hosted the screening in Portland, and was clearly blown away by an audience queue that extended around the block, forcing a sold-out showing and emergency late-night screening for the remaining audience.

What is clearest about the Parsons documentary is that everyone who knew him realized they were in the presence of genius - a completely self-destructive and obnoxious genius, but genius nonetheless. His most prominent musical partners, including Chris Hillman of the Byrds, Keith Richards of the Stones, and Emmylou Harris, testify so eloquently. But the same self-assured genius made Parsons almost completely unbearable as a musical, romantic, or family partner, and he tore down relationships that could have saved him and enriched music immeasurably, alienating himself from his most dedicated allies. It's also clear that in his abbreviated life, Parsons was able to play key roles in some of the most significant musical transformations of his era - taking the Byrds into proto-country, performing on the bill with the Stones at the disastrous concert at Altamont, bringing Emmylou Harris to national attention, and playing an active role in the rediscovery of American roots and country by the rock audiences of the time. Keef in particular expresses his remorse at playing with Parsons, recognizing his gifts and his talent, and not recognizing how Parsons' own habits and weaknesses were threatening his prospects to continue his musical growth (Mick Jagger, not interviewed here, is depicted as a far more competent professional who tried to encourage Parsons to take his career, health, and family life more seriously).

I was never a huge Parsons fan; my knowledge of his musical legacy comes from the performances by other musicians of his songs. But seeing the old concert footage - from sophisticated live sets to ramshackle house jams - makes it clear that he was a true one-of-a-kind, with a gorgeous voice and spectacular physical beauty, coupled with songwriterly gifts that were just beginning to grow - before alcohol and drugs caused caused his eventual decline and death at the age of only 26.

I'm much less interested in the morbid tale of Parson's afterlife - the theft of his corpse and his partial-cremation in the desert by a road manager. But as Peter Buck of R.E.M. says in the film, that sort of mystery explains a large part of his mystique.

My only complaint about the documentary, which is incredibly detailed, loving, and sympathetic to both Parsons' survivors and his musical colleagues, is that the director puts too much emphasis into talking-head commentary and fails to show any complete performances, or any live footage longer than a minute or so long. Additionally, there were either very few interviews ever recorded with Parsons or Hennig chose not to include them. As a result it's harder to get a sense of how Parsons himself spoke or expressed himself.
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A thoughtful and compassionate study of Parsons' life.
benblaine9 April 2006
Having just seen the film I was shocked by the previous comment which seems way off beam to me. I don't think that there is anything shoddy about the editing or camera work, though a great deal of the footage is original super 8 material that obviously has all the flaws of being shot by men on drugs.

Most of all I felt that this was a wonderfully composed documentary that took as it's subject Parsons' life as a whole, rather than concentrating on his all too brief recording career. It is clear that the director felt that the demons which created Gram's music and which pursued him to his early death came from his opulent childhood, the early and shocking suicide of his father, the death from alcoholism of his mother and the alleged role in this of his step father Bob Parsons. Consequently we hear from Gram's half sister, from Bob Parsons' other daughter (with his second wife) and from Bob Parsons' friend because these are all people who can shed light on these events which are so vital in understanding Gram's life. The relationship between Gram and Bob was complex and obviously very important to Gram and I felt the inclusion of all of these people made for a powerful portrait of Gram Parsons.

Overall I thought the documentary was balanced, fair, enthralling and with an excellent calibre of interviewee (not only in that we hear detailed accounts from greats like Emmy Lou Harris and Keith Richards but that the team have dug deep and seem to have got hold of people who knew Gram at every stage in his life). It discusses all the aspects and issues of Parsons' life, loves and death without stooping to gossipy tittle-tattle about who slept with who. I think the previous commentator must have seen an entirely different film, the one I've just watched is brilliant.
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Sweet & Sour
ytamscc16 June 2006
Seeing this movie reminded me of the pitfall's that "stardom"can bring. I found this doc/ movie to further expand on the myth of Gram Parson musical legacy and influence in American music. It was profoundly sad that he had such a short stay. Yes the doc is shot at times with a lot of movement & at times the editing process is not smooth. Not much footage exists. The director made an effort to put together footage that was well over 20 years old! I found the content & tribute to Gram very tasteful & full of passion. It's been made with the best intentions. It projects the "sweet & sour" moments that human beings endure. I was moved to to tears seeing Emmy Lou talk about her "soulmate in music". I am glad that the director & friends who saw that this Doc was made brought forth many of the stories with them and shared with the fans his rise and fall in a manner that was both informative & entertaining. Kudos! It's a must see if you do love Gram Parsons. This is a tough story to tackle. I for one think that this tells a very HUMAN story.
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good documentary
jamesdamnbrown15 June 2006
A very worthwhile documentary about musician Gram Parsons of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers. Originally filmed for British and German television, the movie is a very detailed portrait of Parsons' life, albeit at arm's length—there would appear to be very little footage of Gram available, most of it performance clips, many of amateurish home movie quality. I don't recall even one shot of Gram on screen talking, although his voice is heard in a few sound snippets from an audio interview of indeterminate origin. The movie instead relies on extensive usage of still photographs and, most impressively, interviews with just about anyone still alive who was involved in Parson's life, including bandmates Chris Hillman and Emmylou Harris, Keith Richards, the surviving members of Gram's family, blustery former road manager Phil Kaufman who stole Gram's body at LAX and drunkenly drove it out to the desert and burned it, and even the girlfriend who checked into room number 8 at the Joshua Tree Inn with Parsons and watched him die of an overdose. The dynamics of Parsons' dysfunctional family and the impact it had on him are well documented, perhaps maybe a little too well documented, but the recollections of the musicians who played with him provide the most illuminating commentary on the allure and difficulties of Parsons' self-destructive talent. Overall, I had two main criticisms. One, the filmmakers' melodramatic animation of cartoon flames that rise from the bottom of the screen as Kaufman describes striking a match and throwing it into Parsons' gasoline soaked coffin—not to mention the aerial shot of a bonfire burning in the desert, obviously supposed to emblematic of Gram's burning corpse—is especially cheesy, and really tacky. But my larger complaint is that despite the effluent praise of Parsons' talent, the film never establishes a broader historical context for his musical accomplishments that would allow the casual viewer to understand why he was so important, which was that he almost single-handedly invented the genre of country-rock. Pamela Des Barres alludes to it somewhat when she describes Gram playing records by Lefty Frizzell and Willie and Waylon for her, turning her on to a rich, vibrant side of country music that most rock music fans were unaware of at the time. But with the Byrd's Sweetheart Of The Rodeo and his injection of flashy Nudie suit glam rock star attitude into his fairly traditional but definitely non-Nashville brand of country songwriting, he broke through to the rock crowd with an updated take on country music that paved the way for the Eagles and every country-rock outfit that followed. You maybe wouldn't quite understand how revolutionary that was from this film—some obscure family friends could've been replaced by a perceptive rock critic or two—but all in all it's a really good documentary.
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The Situated Seduction
tedg17 July 2008
You should know I am biased in this comment. I know some of the people in this documentary. And I had Gram's piano in my house for ten years after he died.

I value what he found with Emmylou as charmed, unique and important. His music never touched me personally because it was so hopeless in intent while being so seductive and original in its phrasing. This is everything Sinatra was claimed to be. It was genuine; just the wrong food for health.

There are two stories here. One is the story of what actually made the music special — when it was. You won't get this from old musicians or girl friends. You have to get it from someone who is a storyteller of skill equal to the subject: subtle, light, subliminal and full of contradictions. Addiction before it manifests, while it is still an urge.

This documentary misses that, misses it completely. Some people say that he was influential and then point to what today is called country music. That's neither useful nor correct. You miss everything if you miss this.

There is another story, the "Tennessee Williams" family tragedy that proceeds three generations before and already two after him. Its vastly more complex than described here, cleaned for obvious reasons.

Some day, someone may find a way to tell this story in a way that is not merely voyeuristic, but in a way that matters, that is deep and that changes lives. Until then, simple people will just want the broad outlines, and some unusual drama. And they will be able to get that here.

The editing is fine. The archival footage is valuable. There are lots of good songs.

Ted's Evaluation -- 2 of 3: Has some interesting elements.
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A sad story, mostly well told
catchick9 April 2008
I too wish there had been a little more depth in this movie. However, when my sister saw it at the screening at the Belcourt Theatre in Nashville, along with many of Gram's close friends and colleagues, she never heard anyone voice some of the complaints registered here.

I think calling Gram "obnoxious" is too simplistic. He obviously had his obnoxious moments, but most highly creative people do. It's part of that artistic temperament you've heard tell of. However, I don't think most people could have registered the emotion they showed had Parsons merely been a gifted jerk. This is where the movie shines. The directors show some of the people who genuinely cared about Parsons as a person, and how his untimely death affected them.

I understand the attempt to show Parsons as more than the very pretty face and voice idolized so often. I think the filmmakers wanted audiences to understand Ingram Parsons as a human being, a guy who had a lot of breaks in his life, but who also had a legion of demons chasing him. I actually found myself liking this man a lot by the end of the movie. Parsons was a basically nice, decent guy who had a lot of bad wiring, not the least of which included an inborn tendency to addiction. I felt incredible pity for him.

I hope this movie spurs viewers to listen to Parsons' music and to appreciate the influence he had on popular music. If it does that, it has done its work well.
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'Cause we've got our recruits (Keef, Peter Buck, Miss Pamela and Emmy Lou)...
Twins6530 August 2012
Warning: Spoilers
...and our green mohair suits (all the ex-Burritos and Fallen Angels, many who are not credited on the IMDb main details page for some reason), so please show your I.D. at the door

Just became aware of this great doc, and watched the whole thing online. I guess that makes this my first review on IMDb to come from a movie watched entirely on the internet. Wow, I really am slow to catch the trends.

The producers really went deep to find people who knew Gram, especially from his formative years as a kid and as a Harvard "student". The interviewees from the LA years were also insightful. I learned a lot about the man, and knew he lived large because of his privileged background, but a $65,000/yr. trust fund in the late 60's would be quite a fund to stoke a party. Unfortunately, moderation never seemed to be a concept he grasped.

Anyway, since we're now down to just one "Original Burrito" (Chris Hillman), I thought I'd bang out a little tribute to the group here, giving them a (very) belated thumbs up for some fine, under-appreciated work.

P.S.-I was a little disappointed the two women featured on the cover of "The Gilded Palace of Sin" were not identified, only that they were models. Can anyone out there identify them for me, as I've been admiring them for years.
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This is a poor documentary about a rich subject
altafayejones26 July 2006
Warning: Spoilers
By the time the documentary gets to the end of Gram's life we might as well be watching a "Behind the Music" episode of VH1. I appreciate the effort that the director put in to get this story told (since there is very little material to work with, we have to accept what we get), but his own interview reveals all the flaws in the conceit. I have seen footage that didn't make it into the movie and I wonder why. We are expected to accept this overview as objective, while the director is dressed in cowboy spangles and turquoise; obviously copying the costume of the period even though he probably wasn't born when Gram died.

What really got my goat was the idea that there was something wrong about the way his body was treated by Phil and Michael. As though the "family" gave a damn. It's a body, it's not the person. Gram wanted to be burned at the Cap Rock when he died. Phil was Gram's friend, however anyone feels about it, and he fulfilled his friend's wish. Gram was in the process of divorcing Gretchen. The family interviews suggest that Phil Kaufman was to blame for Gram's death, even though the first 3/4's of the film make it clear that Gram was not controlled by anyone. Allowing Gretchen to appear on camera is the height of absurdity. She can't even muster a tear for the man she supposedly loved (plastic surgery will do that). We are subjected to the opinion of the whore who was with him when he died, and expected to believe that Gram's family was looking out for him when they weren't anywhere near him at the end. Look up the Parsons and you will find that the reason that Bob Parsons wanted Gram buried in New Orleans was so he could have access to Gram's royalties. Gram did not want to be anywhere near Bob Parsons.

Gram and Phil made a pact and Phil kept it, regardless of how anyone feels about it. So instead of exploring the reasons why Gram wanted to obliterate reality, and how earth shatteringly great his final record was, we get platitudes from people who didn't spend any time with him in the last years of his life. There is only James Burton and Emmylou to give us a musical perspective, even though all he did was revolutionize rock music.

I feel bad about his sister and his daughter, but they are barely a part of this documentary. The unkindest cut is that Bob Parsons is portrayed as some sort of caring parent. If you want to know about Gram, you'd be better off listening to his records and watching "Grand Theft Parsons" (which, though fictionalized, tells the truth).

Putting aside my anger for a moment, Chris Hillman, Chris Ethridge, Bernie Leadon, and Emmylou tell the truth, and there are some excellent pictures that aren't available anywhere else. Gram was a giant, however, and he deserves better. Because this is all we have, I rate the film higher than it deserves. p.s. Sid Griffin is credited as a co-writer, but the film shares none of the insight of Sid's book. It's as though he forgot who he was writing about, unless the director decided to ignore his work.
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Grotesquely insensitive and disrespectful documentary about Gram Parsons
rustin-223 May 2005
This is a slipshod documentary that is about as original and involving as an episode of VH1's Behind the Music. The production values are very poor, with much of the video footage shot erratically out the window of a moving car, and the editing is a clumsy, uninspired pastiche of quick pans and tilts across black and white still photos jarringly inter-cut with a relentless onslaught of meaningless talking heads (do we really need to hear from the girlfriend of Parson's manager or the best friend of Parson's dead stepfather?). We hear very little of Parson's music, most of which plays in the background under the interviews, and no one except Emmylou Harris manages to truly elucidate Parson's gifts as a singer and songwriter. Technically, the film is embarrassing, but it is even worse in its shameful final minutes, when it juxtaposes the bizarre circumstances of Parson's burial with the heartfelt grief of those who loved Parsons, and manipulates the audience into laughter when what we should be feeling is sadness. Fallen Angel is disrespectful of Gram Parsons' groundbreaking music, banal in its storytelling, and grotesquely insensitive to the people who knew and loved him.
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Fallen Angel: Gram Parsons
ambercatangel16 September 2006
Warning: Spoilers
This film is a very special treasure to those who love Gram Parsons and his music. The director did a wonderful job with very old film and the lack of any on film interviews with the subject. The clips of performances that are seen are not up to modern standards but they are what is available and it was wonderful to see Gram performing even if they are not very clear or complete. The interviews with his wife Gretchen, daughter Polly, step-sister, and sister are all very moving. No one is denying that the marriage was in trouble but is is very clear from her obvious distress and tears (facelfts do not destroy the tear ducts) that she loved him very much. I also found the comments of Bob Parsons's friend very painful but very enlightening. We have the director to thank for the kind of research it took to obtain these first time interviews with the people in his life. Margaret Fisher was very courageous and heartbreaking to watch as she was interviewed about the last day of his life It was very clear that she to loved this young man who had been her friend from their teen years in Florida. On the musical side it was wonderful to hear from Keith, Emmylou, James Burton, and Chris Ethridge. Chris Hillman was also interviewed and gave his usual conflicted view of his feelings about Gram. The one fault with the film and it is huge is Phil Kaufman making a joke out of the tragic death and horrendous desecration of Gram's remains. It is heartbreaking to think of Gram(dead or alive)in this awful man's realm. The film is a tribute to this beautiful, self-destructive genius who did so much to give the world Cosmic American Music. If he had not left us way to soon one can only imagine what might have been.
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What does Gretchen have to do with it?
bailliemarti25 July 2007
I already wrote a comment saying how i loved the movie Fallen Angel.

I wrote what a drip Gretchen seemed compared to Emmylou. Gram had already left Gretchen, i have know doubt he would have ended up with Emmylou, they were meant for each other.

The fact that Gretchen doesn't GET why Gram's body was taken out to the Joshua tree reinfects how little she knew the man. I do think that it could all have been handled better, the cremation should have been completed, but Gram's resting place will always be at the Joshua Tree, no matter what people like Gretchen and family members think.

I don't understand why you didn't print my last comment. Not only does "Love Hurt", but i guess "Truth Hurts" too.

Gretchen tried to make it seem that Gram had gone off to dry out, right, that's why he had drugs and a chick with him. He has already left Gretchen. If anything she drove him out rather than dried him out. Print the facts.
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