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Smoldering Ashes and Fallen Angels: The Gram Parsons DVD

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Dusted's Ben Tausig checks out Gandulf Hennig's recent Gram Parsons movie, Fallen Angel.

Smoldering Ashes and Fallen Angels: The Gram Parsons DVD

The cult of Gram Parsons tends to look past his hugely wasted talent. With the Flying Burrito Brothers, he wrote a small handful of great songs, and then even fewer as a solo musician. A rapid descent into addiction, coupled with a recalcitrance only generously called iconoclasm, prevented him from recording and writing as much as he might and should have. If Parsons was the citified heir to the temptation-addled genius of Merle Haggard and George Jones, it should at least be noted that he lacked his idols' work ethic. He was far more committed to enacting his own fatalism than to thinking of his fans and bandmates: when the bottle let him down, he reached for harder stuff.

In Gandulf Hennig's adulatory documentary Fallen Angel, it appears Parsons decided to die fast in the same moment that he decided to become a celebrity, and that both fantasies were realized with impressive haste. But the story differs from the standard issue rise-and-fall fable inasmuch as Parsons never rejected or even struggled with the paradoxes of fame, and didn't waste any time proceeding from cherubic heartthrob to bloated, dying mess – and all without a gold record!

The greatest strength of the film may be an illumination of this decline, which was catalyzed by stunningly diva-ish, amoral behavior. Hennig does have great footage – of the Burrito Brothers tripping on a train and frightening the other passengers, and of Parsons boarding a helicopter with the Rolling Stones to escape the Altamont Speedway, to name just two moments – but it almost unilaterally makes Parsons look bratty, dilettantish, prodigal, or selfish. Interviews with family members and former bandmates more or less reinforce these impressions. The zombie Keith Richards mumbles about their brief but close friendship. And Emmylou Harris, whose career was greatly aided by her Tammy Wynette-inspired role on Parsons' GP, issues what may be the only compliment that isn't fully loaded – Gram should be remembered for his music, not for the way he died.

Of course, it's hard not to also remember him for his jacket – the tailor-made, rhinestone-studded, sci-fi country thing he wears proudly on the cover of The Gilded Palace of Sin. It's covered in stitched imagery, including drug flora, pills, and a gigantic, radiant cross. In addition to making its wearer glitter loudly, the jacket expresses an open embrace of self-deprecation and a potentially ironic hubris that swallows faith whole. This was not a conception of rock stardom ever in the purview of Elvis Presley and others on whom Parsons modeled his life and career. It was, instead, a conception sharp enough to foresee its own demise in advance, to draw it on a jacket, but not wise or willful enough to avoid it.

Hennig makes many non-judgmental allusions to his subject's privileged upbringing, including his trust fund and matriculation at Harvard. This approach is, on one hand, fair; the presumption of a lack of struggle engendered by wealth should not be an a priori condemnation of hard-workin' credibility (particularly since Parsons never claimed any). But on the other hand, wealth in this case is the crux of a unique career trajectory that brought a person into the limelight before he was ready, and allowed him to act like a rock star even while he avoided being a musician. His was a stardom of a decidedly aristocratic sort, even as it floated on an ocean of songs about poverty.

The climax is ugly. We return to the site of the partial cremation in the desert, complete with reenacted fire (!), and hear the familiar story narrated. Resolution is just as elusive now as it was then.

By Ben Tausig

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