Gram Parsons, seminal country/rock icon and one-time member of the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers, is the subject of a documentary that made its U.S. debut at the Nashville Film Festival over two years ago.
Gram Parsons, seminal country/rock icon and one-time member of the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers, is the subject of a documentary that made its U.S. debut at the Nashville Film Festival over two years ago. Masterminded and directed by German-born Gandulf Hennig, the film-Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel-was released in June on DVD via Rhino Entertainment after a long wait for Parsons devotees, who’ve likely been chomping at the bit for a comprehensive retrospective like this.
“I think that the film is so well-organized and thoroughly documented,” says Polly Parsons (Gram’s daughter), who is a staunch promoter of her father’s musical legacy in Los Angeles and beyond. “It held very true to his life and he emphasized the music rather than taking a dramatic turn. Gandulf and his team did a remarkable job through a lot of hard work.”
The documentary meticulously traces Parsons’ early days-from his upper-class Georgia upbringing and the dramatic death of both parents, to his exploration of the Boston folk scene (while briefly attending Harvard) and subsequent life-altering discovery of country music.
Employing a tapestry of rare behind-the-scenes footage, stellar-quality background music and a revealing series of interviews throughout, Hennig effectively transitions to Parsons’ burgeoning creativity on the LA scene, his impassioned eclecticism and his live-hard-die-young lifestyle.
“[Gandulf] didn’t come to me and Keith Richards for interviews until a year ago, and he’d already been working on it for about five years,” says Polly. “This spoke volumes to me because it showed that he had total faith in achieving his goal, and he was going to make the film with or without a ‘heavy-hitter’ like Keith to lend it credibility.”
Aside from the insightful probing of Richards, interviews with Parsons’ wife Gretchen, half-sister Diane, Chris Hillman, Bernie Leadon, Sneaky Pete Kleinow, John Nuese Emmylou Harris, Phil Kaufmann and others afforded the documentary an intimate development.
“In the beginning it was not easy to get their [friends and family] cooperation, but in a way it was harder to actually make these interviews once they had agreed to contribute,” recalls Hennig. “These people were still deeply hurt by the loss of Gram, especially under the given circumstances and by all that weird stuff that has been written about it. Meeting with Gram’s family was a big lecture for me; it changed the course of Fallen Angel completely, and I am very thankful for their bravery to contribute to the film.”
The seeds were planted early on for Hennig’s filmmaking endeavor.”It started about 12 years ago,” he recalls. “When I started to work in the film industry as a rookie, Fallen Angel was the first project I wanted to develop, but back then of course everybody laughed at me in Europe…‘Gram who?'”
Hennig began to seek funding six years ago and found partners in a large German film commission, a German television station, and finally the influential BBC. Shooting was done mainly in California, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, and in various hotel rooms in London and New York between March and November 2003.
“It was most essential to shoot all the interviews on location,” insists Hennig. “I think in order to get a realistic idea of who Gram Parsons was, we had to go to Waycross [Georgia] and Winter Haven [Florida]–and, of course, to L.A. and to Joshua Tree.”
The impact of Parsons’ indelible musical style and influence was (and remains) the driving force behind Hennig’s desire to bring the story to the screen, despite the inevitable draw of the fabled rock ‘n’ roll scenario of indulgence and untimely death.
“I am a musician myself, and I got infected many years ago mainly by Gram’s voice when I heard Hot Burrito #1 for the first time,” says Hennig. “Gram’s music has been a great inspiration ever since. Even if you want to, you can’t ignore that these circumstances that have added to GP’s legend, but this does not make his musical legacy any less important. However, it makes the film interesting to other audiences than just music buffs.”
The film’s initial broadcast in March 2004 on the BBC’s digital channel, BBC4, was an outright success. Hennig was told that Fallen Angel was one of the most successful programs that has aired on the channel thus far.
“It was very rewarding when I heard from the BBC that after the initial transmission, people who had never heard of Gram Parsons before were calling the station and asking where they could find his music,” says Hennig. “I found that amazing!”
As for as a potential distribution deal, both Hennig and Polly Parsons are confident that proper arrangements will be made in the near future, and that audiences, both old and new, will embrace the film wholeheartedly.
“At this moment, we are receiving all kinds of offers for distribution, but we have not made any decisions yet, and it’s not just the highest bid we are looking for, says Hennig.” I am proud of what we’ve done with Fallen Angel, and we’d rather take our time and look for the right partner instead of looking for a fast buck.”
In one of the film’s truly memorable segments, Keith Richards nostalgically cringes while referencing Parsons’ tragically sudden passing, evoking a broken sentiment that he and his friend were poised to grow old making great music together; since that would never quite come to fruition, perhaps Fallen Angel is a fitting document that will help preserve the vital body of work that Parsons produced during his short time on this Earth.