I always had the impression that when Emmylou Harris started singing with Gram Parsons, she was something of a demure folkie. It turns out that in the early days of the Fallen Angel Band, she had to kick Parsons' lazy butt more than once to get him to stop boozing and rehearse.
That's just one of the eye-openers in this compelling documentary. Director Gandulf Hennig and writer Sid Griffin present a balanced portrait of an artist who is too often granted the free ride that's given to stars who die young. With a mix of archival footage and unflinching interviews with those who knew him best, we get a sense of the complex person behind the legend.
Gram Snively (Parsons was his stepdad's name) was born the golden boy to a family straight out of a Tennessee Williams' play. Money, alcoholism, mental illness and suicide were all swirling around the young Gram. Then at 10, he met Elvis Presley and his life ambition was defined.
While his path was paved with privilege and trust fund money (his parents bought him his own club to perform in when he was sixteen), Parsons was serious about music. Though he tried to live up to family expectations, he finally dropped out of Harvard to follow his Bakersfield professors, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.
Gram's move to California and early evolution is the centerpiece of the film, with lot of juicy anecdotes from fellow musicians Bernie Leadon and Chris Hillman (he calls the early days of the Flying Burritos a "cowboy Fellini movie"). There are interesting tales about Nudie suits (Gram's told the story of how he wanted to die), Gram's obsession with the Rolling Stones and the L.A. country-rock scene of the late '60s.
It was Emmylou Harris who rescued Gram from the descent into drug addiction that might've claimed him at an even younger age. Musical soul mates, the two had a compatibility that was, as Harris once put it, like "Astaire and Rogers." It's moving to hear Harris talk about how, when Parsons finally sobered up, she really "heard" his voice for the first time.
The sordid end to the tale is recounted in detail (drug overdose, body burned in the desert), bringing out ire from family members and friends, shrugging alibis from road manager Phil Kaufman and, in this viewer at least, a sad realization of what might've been had Parsons lived.
Early on in the film, you hear Gram's voice say, "I dream of soul country. What I call cosmic American music." In his short life, he definitely touched his dream. • Bill DeMain
a history of the flying burrito brothers at byrdwatcher