THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Gram Parsons was a member of the Byrds and later a solo artist. While his music is well known, the story of what happened after his death is not. Grand Theft Parsons played at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and then got a limited theatrical release. It’s now on video and DVD. Whether or not you were a fan of the musician, the film (based on a true story) is a fascinating tale of the days after Parsons died of a drug overdose.

Johnny Knoxville plays Phil Kaufman, Parsons’ road manager and best friend. When he receives word that the musician is dead, he feels a combination of emotions. One is guilt; he thinks he should have been there to prevent the overdose. The other feeling is brotherhood. Phil remembers a trip he and Parsons made to Joshua Tree. There they made a promise: whenever one of them died, the other would scatter his buddy’s ashes across the desert. Phil intends to keep the promise and honor his friend’s wishes.

Of course, he’s not in control of the corpse. The only way to get it is to steal it. Phil rents a hearse from a local hippie stoner (Michael Shannon) and heads to the airport. After a series of comic mishaps, they abscond with the body and head for Joshua Tree. Parsons’ father (Robert Forster) sees them as they’re driving off with his son, so he sets out after them. So does Barbara (Christina Applegate), who once dated Parsons and now wants to get rich off his personal belongings. She doesn’t trust Phil and quickly figures out what he’s up to. If she can reach him before he arrives in Joshua Tree, she might be able to salvage Parsons’ famed guitar.

One of the first things you notice when you watch Grand Theft Parsons is that Johnny Knoxville is serious about being an actor. Despite having gained fame as the lead member of MTV’s “Jackass” crew, Knoxville is more than a doofus who’s willing to let someone shoot him with a stun gun or kick him in the crotch. He works hard here to de-Jackass himself and play the character with sincerity. It works. Knoxville’s natural affability is an asset to the role. We easily believe him as the likable rogue who gets away with more than he should. Aiding Knoxville is an able supporting cast, most especially Applegate, who brings more depth to the gold-digging ex-girlfriend than you might expect.

What I responded to most about Grand Theft Parsons is that it tells the story without excess sentimentality. It plays in a straightforward fashion, without manipulation, without familiar proclaimations about a generation lost to drug abuse, without bland platitudes about brotherhood. This is not to say that the film is emotionless or pointless; it is neither of these things. However, the beauty of the picture is that it doesn’t try to tell you how to feel. Maybe what Phil Kaufman did was right or maybe it was wrong. Either way, you understand why he did it and, more importantly, why he felt he had to do it. The often humorous tone of the film keeps it from veering into the potential pitfall of trying to dictate audience emotion. More than anything, this is a story about a guy trying to make sense of the unnecessary death of a good friend. It’s easier to respond to this theme when the story isn’t trying to tell you how you should feel every step of the way.

The DVD includes a few special features: a small handful of deleted scenes and interviews with the cast, as well as the real Phil Kaufman. The movie is presented in its intended 1.85:1 aspect ratio, with a good transfer and a quality sound mix. Grand Theft Parsons is disarming in its earnest approach to the story. It pulls you in with its offbeat subject matter but holds your attention with sincerity and humor. I think that perhaps the film would have been a tiny bit stronger had we come to know Parsons a bit before he died; that would have possibly made us feel a more intense connection between he and Phil. Regardless, this is a funny, engaging movie that’s worth seeking out.

( out of four)

Grand Theft Parsons is rated PG-13 for drug references and some language. The running time is 1 hour and 28 minutes.

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