David Caffrey’s gentle-spirited comedy-drama “Grand Theft Parsons” is based on a legendary rock’n’roll incident so strange it could only have happened in early-’70s Southern California. This rollicking, mellow-rolling film is a lightly fictionalized account of the pact made by country-rock icon Gram Parsons and his wild-a*s road manager Phil Kaufman: whoever died first would have his body brought out to Joshua Tree National Monument, in the SoCal desert, by the one left alive. There, the corpse – presumably still young and good-looking – would be set on fire, thus setting the spirit free…or something like that. People just did this sort of thing back then.
On September 18th, 1973, Gram Parsons fulfilled the “dying first” part of the bargain. The cause was general overindulgence in alcohol and drugs; the location, a room at the Joshua Tree Inn, ironically enough. The fact that Parsons – late of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, compatriot of Keith Richards and Emmylou Harris, and maker of the influential masterpieces GP and Grievous Angel – had checked out for good at age 26 wasn’t surprising to anyone who knew him, and Kaufman knew him better than anyone. But what still amazes rock cultists to this day (and the Cult of Gram is one of the most fanatical) is that if Kaufman is to be believed, he actually managed to make good on their crazy deal. Of course, Kaufman did do time with one Charles Manson back in ’67, and his autobiography is titled Road Mangler Deluxe – so that gives you an idea of where his head is at.
The story begins as Kaufman, played with surprising grace and feeling by “Jackass” ringleader Johnny Knoxville, gets the bad news and hauls a*s out to Joshua Tree only to find that he can’t spring Parsons’ body from the local hospital. Back in L.A., heÕs confronted by Parsons’ golddigging shrew of an ex-girlfriend, Barbara (Christina Applegate, pure hell-on-wheels). Barbara has in her talons a scrap of paper bearing Parsons’ signature, allegedly willing her his guitar, his tape masters and just about everything else. Squeezed between Barbara and his own unhappy girlfriend (lovely Marley Shelton), Kaufman does the only thing he can: get hold of a flower-power-painted hearse and hightail it down to LAX to intercept Parsons’ coffin.
The hearse’s owner is another problem, however. Larry Osterberg (Michael Shannon) is an acid-fried, yogafied hippie oddball who can’t let Bernice, his beloved bolt-bucket of a hearse, out of his sight. So he becomes the chaffeur on Kaufman’s mad quest. Shannon is a zonked-out deadpan master and provides the comic relief in this comedy, if that’s possible.
At LAX, further complications arise when Parsons’ straitlaced father Stanley (good old Robert Forster) shows up to collect his son and fly with the body back to New Orleans. Needless to say, this time Kaufman won’t relent and succeeds in getting his grubby hands on the coffin – and the chase is on. Hilarity and heartbreak, as they say, ensue – all the tune of an amazing soundtrack featuring not only many Parsons tunes but also everyone from Springsteen and Country Joe to current disciples Starsailor and The Soundtrack of Our Lives. The movie feels like 1973 must have felt, and the sublime music certainly sounds like it.
“Grand Theft Parsons” is a goofy, easygoing ride most of the way, yet it proves unexpectedly touching once all the characters involved in the fate of this one prized stiff arrive at the same spot and must agree among themselves what to do with it, to honor Gram’s wishes or their own. And it doesn’t hurt that the man who plays Parsons in life and in death is Gabriel Macht, who looks uncannily like The Man Himself.
Top it off with a cameo by the real-life Phil Kaufman, and you’ve got a rock’n’roll road movie like no other. Wherever he is, Gram should get a kick out of it.