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Rhino presents
Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel (2004)

"Gram considered himself the fallen angel. I've said if Gram were alive today he'd still be dead. He was heading in that direction."
- Phil Kaufman

Review By: Rich Rosell  
Published: June 19, 2006

Stars: Peter Buck, James Burton, Emmylou Harris, Chris Hillman, Phil Kaufman, Bernie Leadon, Avis Bartkus Parsons III, Gretchen Parsons Carpenter, Diane Parsons, Polly Parsons, Keith Richards, Dwight Yoakam
Director: Gandulf Henning

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 01h:43m:40s
Release Date: June 20, 2006
UPC: 603497042227
Genre: music


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A+ A+B-B+ C+

DVD Review

On the weathered scroll of rock stars who died before their time (no matter what their age), the big marquee names usually top the list. Hendrix. Morrison. Holly. Ramone. Those are your cornerstones, the ones who inspired generations of musicians to come, the ones who checked out prematurely and continue to be the stuff of iconic rock legend. There are a million other names on that scroll, some only known to a small circle, others just as creatively influential as someone like Buddy Holly, but maybe without the flash of familiar name recognition.

That was Gram Parsons, who died of the seemingly inevitable drug overdose at the age of 26 in 1973 after practically single-handedly orchestrating the high and lonesome merger of rock and country in the late 1960s and penning a brief catalog of edgy, forlorn musical genius. Well, that's always been my take, anyway. Musicians have long grasped Parsons dramatic crotch-kick to rock, but his name has never reached Morrison or Ramone status. Despite having a profound effect on a new musical genre, one that still flourishes today, the Parsons name seems to have very little mainstream awareness. And certainly not for a lack of trying. There have been tribute compilations, boxed sets and books about his life, though it seems these generally were preaching to choir, so to speak. You either know who he was, or you don't.

Director Gandulf Henning's does a hell of a job righting that wrong with his BBC-produced doc, Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel, a film that traces what is referred to as a "series of tragedies" and the "Tennessee Williams play" that was the musician's life, while also connecting the dots on Parsons' catalog of creative output. And the story of Parsons' life is filled with a mixture of familiar rock star woes (alcoholism, drug addiction) as well as a big dollop of wealthy Southern Gothic family problems (suicide, affairs, power). The roots of Parsons' trust-fund baby, privileged upbringing seem like the polar opposite of the twangy music he came to be known for, and Henning provides an excellent balance, covering all aspects of the musician's life with a litany of interviews from family and close friends, including Chris Hillman, Emmylou Harris, Bernie Leadon, Keith Richards, and Phil Kaufman.

This isn't just a basic Parsons-For-Dummies primer, because Henning goes pretty deep into the odd family goings-on and volatile band relationships (The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers), Parsons' close ties with Rolling Stone Keith Richards, and even though I had what I thought was a pretty fair knowledge of his life going into this, I still found new angles and background that I hadn't heard known before.

In particular, it is folks like Richards, Harris, Hillman and Leadon—who were there for some part of nearly all the key musical checkpoints—that provide frank and not always flattering remembrances that link together the creative side. Parsons' music is featured here predominantly as frequent accents along the way, and while there is some rarely seen performance footage, very little is played in its entirety. That's not as big of an outright detriment as it might seem on the surface, because as Henning gathers and documents the history, the songs serve as transitional elements to punctuate a story or an era of Parsons' life.

If you're not at all familiar with the life and times of Gram Parsons, his story is an obscenely fascinating and ultimately wasteful one, and it doesn't necessarily end with his overdose. There is a bizarre coda, one that seems both horribly wrong and beautifully apropos, which Henning captures as the mood of the piece suddenly becomes even more tragic, and one of the most colorful interview subjects quickly takes on the shadings of a villain. Or does he? I suppose that's open for moral interpretation (the legal issues seem pretty clear cut), depending on your stance, and the whole thing just adds another coat of strange paint on the life and death of an artist who influenced other musicians, and continues to decades later.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A+

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: Henning's doc is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, and the debris-free transfer carries solid, bright colors during the new interview segments, marred slightly by some evidence of shimmer and haloing. Overall a pretty respectable transfer, just not exceptional in any way. Understandably the quality of the archival footage varies.

Image Transfer Grade: B-

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno
Dolby Digital
5.1
Englishyes


Audio Transfer Review: Audio choices are 2.0 stereo or 5.1 Dolby Digital surround. Both mixes deliver clean, clear voice quality, but where the 5.1 gets the preferred nod is on the presentation of the music, which sounds richer and often rises up out of the rear channels to good effect. The 5.1 isn't gaudy or particularly showy, but it does provide some modest frills not found on the stereo track.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+

 

Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 36 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Documentaries
Packaging: other
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Photo Gallery
Extras Review: A commentary might have been nice, but instead there's the Interview with Director Gandulf Henning (15m:44s), a brief discussion about how he tried to keep the narrative balanced, and rather vaguely how he added material about Gram's sister Avis for the DVD version. Also included are a timeline bio of Parsons' life, a photo gallery, and a full discography, which is really the only value-add here.

The disc is cut into 36 chapters, with no subtitle options.

Extras Grade: C+

 

Final Comments

Not quite the household name that he certainly deserves to be, the odd Gram Parsons Southern Gothic rock saga presented here covers all stages of his life, with interviews from those who knew him best, mixed in with an array of photos and rare film footage. Parsons' daring and influential merger of rock and country really paved the road for bands like The Eagles to later wander down to great success, and thankfully this doc doesn't get heavy-handed with a whole lot of "poor, tortured artist" martyr reverie.

The approach is blunt and truthful without being too sugary, and as we watch a condensed version of the destruction of a talented artist the final destination seems sadly inevitable. Even if you consider yourself well-versed on the Parsons mythos I think you'll discover some new facets here.

Recommended 100%, and for me, easily one of the year's best releases.

 


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