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Grand Theft Parsons (2004)

A story from the annals of music legend

Rating: 3/10

Running Time: 88 minutes

UK Certificate: 12A

In July of 1973, at the funeral of Byrds guitarist Clarence White, 26-year old hard-living alternative country music star Gram Parsons made a drunken pact with his friend and road manager Phil Kaufman that if one of them died, the other would cremate his body in Joshua Tree National Park, a desert region which both of them loved, some 150 miles east of Los Angeles. Two months later, Parsons booked into Room 8 of the Joshua Tree Inn, took too many drugs, and died. After a failed attempt to steal his friend's body from the Joshua Tree Hospital, Kaufman rented a yellow-painted hearse decorated with flowers and peace signs, and was driven by the vehicle's hippie owner Larry Oster-Berg to LA's airport. There they intercepted Pason's coffin as it was being loaded onto a Louisiana-bound aeroplane, and drove it back to Joshua Tree, with Parson's father and the police in hot pursuit.

This story from the annals of music legend seems ready-made for cinema, naturally lending itself to being a road movie, buddy pic and chase flick all rolled into one, and with enough bizarre detail to guarantee cult status. Except that 'Grand Theft Parsons' is so thin on convincing characters and dialogue, and so lacking in the kind of grandeur which fuels the power of legends, that were it not for the film's link to an iconic a piece of history, it would be of almost no interest at all.

The film's problem is its lazy script. Writer Jeremy Drysdale has picked up a perfect made-to-measure storyline, and instead of letting its spirit soar, has confined it to a group of characters more wooden than any coffin. Sure they are all 'wacky', and get to deliver the occasional funny line, but their one-dimensionality becomes clear whenever they have to interact. There is so little credible attempt to show the friendship between Kaufman (Johnny Knoxville) and Oster-Berg (the superb Michael Shannon) developing during the course of the film that it actually needs to be announced at the end – which is something of a flaw in a film that is supposed to be all about friendship's bonds. The scenes in which Kaufman and Parsons' father Stanley (Robert Forster) try to resolve their sense of guilt over Parson's death seem to have been tacked on in a botched last-minute attempt to smuggle in depth for the characters, but jar with everything else in the film (and are not very dramatic, anyway). The scenes shared by Kaufman's girlfriend Susie (Marley Shelton) and Parsons' gold-digging ex-girlfriend Barbara (Christina Applegate) make for excruciatingly pointless padding with next to no humour, which is inexcusable given that the character of Barbara has been entirely invented merely to appear in these scenes.

In the end, it is the story itself – the kind of story you could not make up – which carries this film, but it is a pity that 'Grand Theft Parsons' downgrades its status from legend to so-so indie comedy.

It's Got: A big yellow hearse called Bernice, a certain authenticity (Johnny Knoxville wears the actual Sin City denim jacket that Kaufman wore during the bodysnatching, and some scenes are filmed in the actual motel room where Parsons died), and the real Phil Kaufman in a cameo as a handcuffed felon.

It Needs: Characters of more than one dimension, half-decent dialogue, and soul.


An incredible true story unnecessarily embellished with banal fictitious details. Michael Shannon's performance as Larry Oster-Berg, some funny lines, and a great basic premise keep it moving along the road, but it needs a much better script to provide the right directions.