Fallen Angel Gram Parsons gains flight in new documentary

“We're talking about a very classic Tennessee Williams play here — Southern money and alcoholism. Just a tragedy.” So begins director Gandulf Hennig's newly released documentary, Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel, with Chris Hillman of the Byrds/Flying Burrito Brothers summarizing the life of a complicated troubadour and close friend. Although it's been more than three decades since Parson's overdose at the Joshua Tree Inn, the icon credited for bringing country to the rock 'n' rollers remains a fascinating subject — from fledgling desert-dusted bands making cosmic rock in his image to the embarrassingly bad movie Gram Theft Parsons, about the legendary heist of Parsons' body by his manager.

No matter the vision of Parsons expressed, there's no escaping the high regard with which fans hold his songwriting. Keith Richards describes it as the epitome of “high lonesome music … beautiful pain.” My favorite of Parsons' ballads, “Cry One More Time,” pours forth the story of a drinker holding his ex's memories close — toasting the finale of “the best I ever had” with a chaser of bittersweet honky-tonk.

Hennig presents a candid narrative of Parsons primarily by juxtaposing personalities from his inner circle — from family members and childhood friends to former band members — resulting in an engaging oral history. “I'd say [the film] shows pretty drastically that all the money in the world won't make you a happy person when you don't get enough love and protection growing up,” says Hennig from his current home in Nashville.

Through early photographs and siblings' stories, Hennig unveils the dysfunctional structure that likely contributed to Parsons' early demise at age 26. The son of a war vet named Coon Dog (who committed suicide when the singer was 12) and an orange juice heiress who died of alcoholism, Parsons had lots of cash and little stability. Angel doesn't hover in darkness, however. Hennig interviews musicians Parsons played with over the years, who repeatedly express assurances that they knew early on that their friend possessed star power. Most insightful are Hillman, Richards (Parsons idolized him to the point of skipping out on sessions with his own band to hang with the Stones), and Emmylou Harris, who relates stories of becoming Parsons' musical soulmate toward the end of his life.

Angel offers lasting images of Parsons' extremes — and of the schizophrenia of rock 'n' roll in general. During his time with the Flying Burrito Brothers, he reinvented the rhinestone cowboy “Nudie Suit” and participated in a Fellini-esque photo shoot for the cover of The Gilded Palace of Sin as well as a tour by train involving so many psychedelics that band members arrived home in wheelchairs. (The latter experiences are shown through surprisingly well-preserved Super-8 footage.)

Countering the frivolity of tripping on Amtrak is the pain gripping Parsons' family surrounding his death. Parsons' wife Gretchen and sister Diane tearfully recount their loss — and their anger at Parsons' manager, Phil Kaufman. Kaufman is unrepentant about giving Parsons what he calls a “proper burial” in September 1973 — stealing his casket from LAX (where the body was en route for a family burial in New Orleans) in a hearse and driving it out to Joshua Tree, setting it aflame, and leaving the remnants to burn as he left the scene. “I didn't realize the dimension of pain that the family suffered,” says Hennig of his biggest revelation in creating Angel. “[Diane and Gretchen] shared how hard it is for them to move on with [their lives] when some people can't get enough of the macabre details of Gram's death …. I'm not moralizing about this, I just tried to show [both sides] of it in my movie. I'm not sure if [Phil] ever realized what he did to the family, but I think he believes he did the right thing.”

It's the interview with classmate Margaret Fisher, who was with Parsons when he died, though, that cuts deepest. “If there was a day in my life I could take back, it would be that day,” she admits before breaking down. “To see the light go out in somebody's eyes is not something … to be shared.”

A mix of the goofball and the genuinely sobering, Angel is a fascinating intersection of an artist's struggles with addiction and depression, selfishness and compassion, and fortune and squandered fame, wrapped into the portrait of a lost soul who will continue to be an obsession for many. The Roxie hosts a screening of Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel followed by a Q&A with Hennig on Thursday, June 8, at 7:30 p.m. Admission is $4-8; visit www.roxie.com for more info.

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