It’s about time someone made a documentary about Gram Parsons: He’s only been dead for 33 years. Often called the father of country/rock, Parsons brought the two genres together during his time with the International Submarine Band, Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers. He made listening to—and liking—country music hip for the rock set. German filmmaker/musician Gandulf Hennig has dibs on the first-ever Parsons documentary, the revealing Fallen Angel, set for a DVD release July 11.
Parsons’ short life—he overdosed in 1973 at age 26—is something from a Tennessee Williams play. Born in Florida, his parents (Coon Dog and Big Avis) oversaw the family’s million-dollar orange-juice empire, Snively Groves. After seeing Elvis Presley in concert in 1957, the 10-year-old Parsons was inspired to pursue music. Despite the wealth, home life was challenging. His parents were drunks; dad died when Parsons was 12, which may explain his copious drug and alcohol use in later life. It’s all whirlwind here on out, from flunking out of Harvard (where he discovered Merle Haggard and Buck Owens) to hanging with the Rolling Stones at Altamont.
Fallen Angel includes music and archival performances from Parsons’ various bands. Hennig tracks down nearly every person who ever knew Parsons, such as a former co-worker of his father’s and a high-school bandmate. Yet, Hennig allows the camera to linger for an uncomfortably long time as subjects tear up while recalling Parsons. And do we really need a tour of the motel room where Parsons overdosed in Joshua Tree, Calif.?
Better are the interviews with Parsons’ fellow musicians and pals, most notably Emmylou Harris and a surprisingly lucid Keith Richards, who describes Parsons’ “beautiful pain.”