Gram Parsons was the pioneer of soulful country rock (or ‘Cosmic American Music’ as he termed it) who died over an overdose in 1973 at the age of 26. His musical influence was considerable, but it’s the strange circumstances surrounding his death – or what happened directly after it – that concerns David Caffrey’s slight but amusing road movie.
Jackass main man Johnny Knoxville plays Phil Kaufman, Parsons’ road manager and closest friend, who had made a pact with the singer that if one of them were to die, the other would cremate their body in the desert. So when Parsons turns up dead in a motel room after a lethal cocktail of booze and pills, Kaufman leaps into action, stealing the corpse from the airport where is due to be collected by the singer’s estranged father and hitting the road.
There’s not much to this story, and only five main protagonists – Kaufman is accompanied drug-addled hippie Larry (Michael Shannon) whose flower-powered hearse he hires, while on their trail are Parsons’ money-grabbing ex-lover (Christina Applegate), Kaufman’s long-suffering girlfriend (Marley Shelton) and Gram’s father (Robert Forster). None of these characters are fleshed out to any depth, but winning performances compensate. Knoxville provides a charismatic, surprisingly restrained presence, while Shannon gets the biggest laughs and Forster is suitably dignified as the father who just wants to take his son home; only Christina Applegate’s shrieking shtick wears thin after a while.
This is a potentially very sad story – a huge talent wasted so young, a friend who cares more about him than his family ever did – but Irish director Caffrey plays most of it for laughs, largely at the expense of any real drama or depth. Luckily, it is often very funny, as Kaufman tries to convince Larry that he’s a coffin dealer and that there isn’t really a corpse in the back of his car while trying to avoid various entanglements with the law. There are occasional moments of melancholy, and the cremation itself is nicely handled as Kaufman bids farewell to his friend with a bittersweet elegy about the waste of his life and the fact he was elsewhere when he took his fatal overdose. "I'm sorry I wasn't there when you threw away your damn-fool life. I was there before and I've been there ever since."
British writer Jeremy Drysdale’s screenplay takes huge liberties with the facts – Applegate’s character is entirely invented, and Parson’s father actually died when he was 12. It was his hated step-dad who really tried to claim the body, and he certainly never chased Kaufman into the desert, let alone tacitly agree to the unorthodox cremation. But at 85 minutes Grand Theft Parsons breezes by, and the soundtrack is top-notch, Gram’s own material mixed with the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Primal Scream.