Grand Theft Parsons (2003)
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Johnny Knoxville is a solid protagonist as Phil Kaufmen and Michael Shannon is amusing as the hippie with a flowered hearse that Kaufman hires to transport the body. Christina Applegate plays Kaufman's ex-girlfriend and Marley Shelton his current girlfriend, both joining the chase. Robert Forster plays Parsons' aloof dad who feels bad about not being closer to Gram.
This all sounds more entertaining than it actually is. There are too many dull stretches (like the overlong airport sequence), but Knoxville and Shannon play well together and Applegate is always a pleasure to behold (she has such a striking look), not to mention the authentic locations. So it's nothing great, but it's worthwhile if you like the folk rock of the late 60s/early 70s and have a taste for quirky, unique independent movies.
The film runs 88 minutes, but feels longer.
Please take the film for what it is, not how accurate it is to the truth. (Of which I've heard varying accounts, although from what I understand the basics of this film are true, but many of the details and secondary-characters are false/created) Johnny Knoxville of "Jackass" fame stars in this adaptation of a bizarre true story about the events that transpired shortly after the death of famed musician Gram Parsons.
Knoxville portrays Phil Kaufman, Parson's road manager and best friend. When he was still alive, Parsons and Kaufman made a pact of sorts- the first to die would be taken to Joshua Tree and cremated by the surviving friend, in order to "set their spirit free." When Parsons suddenly dies from an apparent overdose, Kaufman enlists the help of a hippie named Larry (Michael Shannon), whom owns a bright yellow hearse, to steal the body and transport it. Kaufman is able to convince the hippie that it is not Parson's body through various increasingly humorous lies.
At the same time, Gram's father (Robert Forster) and psychotic ex-girlfriend (Christina Applegate) pursue Kaufman to get the body for their own reasons. Gram's father simply wants to give his son a traditional burial, and ex-Barbara needs the body for a convoluted scheme by which she wants to inherit his money and recording master-tapes for her personal benefit. Marley Shelton plays Kaufman's girlfriend, who tags along with Barbara to find out what Kaufman's up to.
Despite some negative reviews and mixed critical reception, I found the film very well made. The acting is fantastic. Knoxville surprises and shocks as Kaufman, giving a strong, emotional performance. A complete 180 turn from his hapless reality-persona on "Jackass." Forster is great as a grieving father. Shannon is good as a clueless, drug-addled hippie. Applegate is conniving and fun as Barbara. And Shelton is sympathetic and likable as Phil's girlfriend.
The direction and writing is also very solid, if not a bit simplistic. Helmer David Caffrey does a good job with the material. And the music (including many songs by Parsons and a score by Richard G. Mitchell) is top-notch.
I found this film to be a fun, heartfelt, enjoyable journey. It's touching and will put a smile on your face. Sure, it might not be 100% accurate, but it's a good time. 8 out of 10.
(1) This is NOT a Gram Parsons biopic.
(2) This does NOT feature a lot of Gram Parsons music (only 2 songs, I think).
(3) Quentin Tarantino had nothing to do with this movie, even though you may have gotten it in your "Touch of Tarantino" DVD box set.
So, you ask, what the heck IS this movie? Answer: It's a black comedy about the 2 days following Gram's death, based on the recollections of Gram's road manager Phil Kaufman. In that respect, it stays very close to Mr. Kaufman's account (he gives an interview on the DVD where he tells the story, basically reiterating everything that happens in the movie verbatim). So if it deviates from the truth, don't blame the filmmakers. Blame Phil Kaufman for not telling it like it was.
Really, though, the accuracy shouldn't make any difference. If we want facts, we'd be watching a documentary, not a movie. So in the same way AMADEUS took wild liberties with the truth and still made for great cinema, GRAND THEFT PARSONS should also be enjoyed purely for its entertainment value.
I don't know the first thing about Gram Parsons, his music or the bizarre circumstances following his death. But I can tell you I loved this movie. It's basically about a bunch of people fighting over a corpse. But don't expect a madcap comedy like "Weekend at Bernies". This has a very subtle style of humour, more like the deadpan comedies "Midnight Run" or "Groundhog Day". It's also a bit of a road movie, carrying a vibe much like "Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas".
Some of the gags had me laughing out loud. It wasn't so much what they said as how they said it. With great acting all around, not a moment went by that I wasn't enjoying the show.
Gram Parsons fans, don't expect a movie about Gram. But at the same time, if I were a hardcore GP fan, I think I would get a real kick out of this movie, seeing that Gram raised hell not only in life, but even in death.
Good, I feel better now that I've got that out of the way.
First off, this film is superbly acted. Johnny Knoxville as Parsons' "road mangler" Phil Kaufman, Michael Shannon as Larry Oster-burg, the stoned-out hippie owner of the psychedelic hearse, and Christina Applegate as Parsons' psychotic ex-girlfriend after his money, all breathe so much life into their characters, even if you want to hate all 3 of them for various reasons, at various points in the film.
Gabriel Macht, whom every movie buff would remember from the god-awful 'The Spirit', was the perfect choice to play Gram. Compare any photo of Macht to the photo of Gram Parsons on the cover of the 'Grievous Angel' album. It's uncanny, I tell ya!
Although some jokes are fairly obvious, there is plenty of subtlety. This film definitely warrants repeated viewings, because you definitely won't get all of the jokes the first time around.
One of the funniest scenes is when the hearse hits a road sign and the two are met by a state trooper, who then toys with the two by describing that he's looking for "2 guys in a bright yellow hearse, with a coffin in the back". Even though it's quite obvious to Phil and the cop that they're as good as screwed, the Hippie still tries his best to convince the cop otherwise, all the while still trying to remain oblivious to the fact that they just hit a road sign! Priceless!
The film has a lot of heart, yet somehow keeping the comedy front-and-center while the most emotionally gut-wrenching of scenes take place. If this film can be summed up, it's grief over a loss, yet finding laughter in the darkest of places. The exchange between Phil and Stanley, Gram's father, meeting up at the Joshua Tree Motel is a perfect example. They both share their mutual guilt for not being there for Gram, which prompts a slightly off-the-wall speech from the Hippie that ends with a heart-warming revelation about the whole situation.
But the real tearjerker moment is when Phil brings Gram to his final resting place, and as soon as Phil lights the fire, Gram's "A Song For You" starts playing over the soundtrack. Absolutely brilliant synthesis of music and film that encapsulates all of the feelings of this film in one single blaze of glory! A few minutes of lamentation and joy later, and then with another burst of flame, we're brought back to earth in an instant. Gram having the last laugh from beyond the desert bonfire.
Which brings me to another point. Some films relating to musical figures tend not to use their music for certain reasons. Shoestring budgets, unable to get permission or licensing, among other reasons. This film seems more authentic because they went the extra mile and got some of Gram's songs ("$1000 Wedding", "Return of the Grievous Angel", "A Song For You", among others, as well as a superb cover version of "Hot Burrito #2" by Starsailor). The soundtrack is also peppered with some other great music of the time (Country Joe & The Fish, Eddie Floyd, Rory Gallagher), as well as some other music that may be newer, but actually fit the film really well (Bruce Springsteen's tune "Blood Brothers" was made in 1996, as well as contributions by newer bands Primal Scream, Soundtrack of our Lives, and of course the aforementioned Flying Burrito Brothers cover by Starsailor).
So, it may not be a film for everybody, but for everybody who "gets it", this will be highly enjoyable. But if you don't "get it", that's fine too. This may not be your cup of tea. Unfortunately, I don't know any other films quite like this one. This is a very unique story, done in a very unique way.
The tale begins with Parsons' drug overdose in the cheap motel in Joshua Tree, California. Kaufman dupes the reluctant Larry Osterberg (Shannon), a drug addled, yoga practicing hippie, to drive the latter's psychedelic hearse to the LA airport to pick up what Osterberg thinks is an empty coffin. The comedic chemistry between these two, as they encounter crisis after crisis trying to snatch the body and bring it back to Joshua Tree, is perfect - reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy. Among the obstacles they have to contend with are Parsons' gold digging ex-girlfriend (Applegate), who needs a death certificate to cash in on an informal will leaving her everything, and Parsons' father (Robert Forster), who has flown from New Orleans to pick up the body.
The movie is not without flaws. The Applegate role is purely fictional, and Parsons' real father died when he was a boy. But these characters add humor to the plot and depth to the characterization of Parsons (like all 70s rock stars, he was considered something of a womanizer), so they can easily be overlooked in the name of artistic license. And, there are some parts of the story that are not credible at all. I doubt that a body could be loaded for transport without a valid death certificate, and I've never seen a hotel bathroom that could be locked from the outside. But these are minor cavils.
Whether you're a Parsons devotee (like me), or have never heard of him (like my father, with whom I watched the film), I can just about guarantee that you'll enjoy "Grand Theft Parsons".
"Grand Theft Parsons" is also based on a true story, one equally bizarre and yet compelling -- after country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons died in 1973, his road manager and buddy Phil Kaufman stole the corpse to cremate it in the desert, as part of a pact the two made in life. But just like "Return To Love Canal," "Grand Theft Parsons" does not have a leg up on being great drama simply because it is based in fact.
The film works hard at building momentum and dramatic tension by bringing in former girlfriends, Parsons' father and the inevitable cop or two, but none of these elements really have much to do with the heart of the story. In the end, "Grand Theft Parsons" succeeds modestly in making us feel the emotions that accompany friendship between men who have been on a long, strange trip together. And actually, we get two versions of that kind of friendship: the bond between Parsons and Kaufman, and the Butch-and-Sundance partnership that emerges between Kaufman and the drug-addled hippie who supplies the hearse used in the body heist.
There's a sweetness to "Grand Theft Parsons," but it's not as satisfying as it might have been if more of the back-story had been told.
I enjoyed this movie. The full body belly laughs are in the second half, as well as what little pathos the movie contained. That may be the part they came the closest to getting exactly right. After someone wastes their life at the age of 27 is not the time to grieve. Surely better to set them free.
If you weren't around for the late sixties, early seventies you might not believe the characters in this film.
I probably knew 20 guys just like both of them.
The movie is mythical in it's own right. Being as Phil Kaufman was the only one to really know who/what/why/when/how...I think it does alright by his accounts of the events. Heck, he was one of the producers of the movie! Knoxville and Shannon play off each other well. Applegate is always a pleasure to watch!Macht really does look like Parsons! The soundtrack and score are awesome. The filming locations seem accurate...the point is this....if you are looking for a reverent account of the death and last wishes of an icon, forget it! If you want good Saturday afternoon escapism that has a rock-n-roll lineage, this movie more than fits the role Sit back and enjoy...I have more than once!
Do not take anything about this movie to be accurate. The name Parsons in the title and stealing of his body is just used as springboard for a low budget chase movie, a blatant attempt to grab a few bucks from the Parsons legacy and his fan base. Gram's father had long since been dead in 1973, the other global characters are fictional, none of this has anything to do with Grams life or death.
If you are a Gram fan, I advise you to not see this movie. I wish I hadn't. It's saddening to see something special be treated as such disgracing fodder. I'd swear I could hear Gram turning in his grave while the movie was playing. If you are not familiar with Gram's life and legacy, do not take anything in this movie as being representative of Gram.
I cannot say enough bad things about this movie. If Gram were alive and saw this movie, he would kill himself. Then again, maybe he'd be afraid to if he knew this movie were to result.
Btw, I am a great fan of Parson's music; I have been a fan ever since "Sweetheart of the Rodeo." Sadly, one of those people who is remembered more for his influence rather than his own music. Also neglected is his sometimes writing partner Chris Hillman. They weren't the first to experiment with Country Rock (Michael Nesmith did that), but they surely were among the major players to bring it to a much larger audience.
And to the ones who complain about how can Gram Parsons' dad be in the movie when he died when Gram was 12, all I can say is I don't think he really was in the movie. He leaves the motel 5 seconds before everyone else, and they say "Where'd he go?", so I think that leaves the door open to say that it was the ghost of Gram's dad there. Everything else before that must have been some sort of Star Trek alternate universe/time-line thing. OK, so I'm willing to suspend my belief more than most :-)
So just sit back, and enjoy the ride. It really is a decent flick. Oh, and go buy the albums...
Johnny Knoxville surely has proved himself as a talented actor. Hopefully Hollywood will take note and give him more than Luke Duke. I'm sure he'll shine as a Duke boy, but Knoxville can handle more. I can totally see him taking on the Edward Norton kind of roles.
I knew nothing about Gram Parsons before watching this, but I enjoyed the small lesson. The opening says something to the effect that while it is based on true events, it has been embellished. But in the extras the writer says that is exactly how it happened. I don't buy the latter. There are a few things that just can't happen, but it still makes for one hell of a joyride.
This is a great Weekend discovery. Watch it and you won't be disappointed.
I do want to point out that this is not a movie about Gram Parsons, which seems to have caused a little confusion with some reviewers here.
The positive reviews are from people who like the film for what it is - a cool buddy road movie with a great soundtrack. The negative reviews are from people who complain about the film's makers changing some of the facts, or not telling enough of Gram Parsons' story, or not treating him with 'respect'.
For the record, this is not about Gram Parsons, but Phil Kaufman. It's not a biopic, but a black comedy. And it's not reverential, but dark, cool, and just a little twisted.
It is, however, great fun. And highly recommended...
If this abject excuse for a film doesn't have the late, great GP spinning like a wheel in his grave, then I doubt anything will.
The excellent review above 'Not a film for Parsons fans' sums up most of my feelings. How dare a (second rate) director and writer attempt something to which they're so clearly incapable of delivering. What were they thinking? Where to start?
THE SCRIPT: I thought I'd be getting a slice of bittersweet Americana. What I got was poorly executed slapstick with no cliché left unturned. Stupid hippy? Check. Stupid fat cop? Check. Awful plot contrivances? Check. Embarrassingly written female characters? Double check. Total disregard for the story which you're trying to portray? Check.
After a while, you realize that what you're watching is a soap and not a very well written one at that. Scene with Knoxville. Scene with Ex girlfriend. Scene with Knoxville which hasn't moved on much. Scene with Ex girlfriend which was a bit like the last one. And so on...
THE DIRECTION: My friends and I decided, after some consideration, that watching this was like watching a bad episode of Quincy, or maybe a particularly poor Dukes of Hazzard. That's how bad the direction was. Terrible jump cuts, awful camera work, clunky ins and outs to scenes. God, it was cringeworthy. And then I discovered the director was an Irishman who's most noteworthy recent work is a really lousy BBC Sunday night drama called Monarch of the Glen (trust me, it's lowest common denominator TV). And then it all made sense...
THE ACTING: Are we now so critical that when some random guy from the TV decides to give acting a go, if he's not so bad, he stinks, we applaud his efforts? Knoxville JUST ABOUT manages to get through every scene. Poor Christina A. has no such luck. Her performance is a car crash (though what you do with those lines, I don't know). The 'hippy' in the hearse: oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Have we not moved on since Cheech and Chong?
I could go on, but I think you get my drift. What I would say is that, as other reviews have mentioned, no one on this film clearly gives a flying damn for The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers or Gram's solo work. They knew nothing about the American road movie and they certainly give a damn about trying to do anything with an admittedly decent story from rock mythology. This film was shallow, failed to explore anything and was jaw droppingly unfunny from beginning to...oh wait, I didn't quite make the end. And I suggest you stay away too.