Grand Theft Parsons Review

The Film

In 1973 Phil Kaufman committed a rather unusual crime; he stole a coffin. Not something that happens every day, but even more rare is it that a stolen coffin contains the corpse of a recently deceased Country music legend. Gram Parsons had just finished his Grievious Angel album, which was only his second solo effort, and was taking a bit of time to relax at the Joshua Tree Motel in southern California. Unfortunately he got a little too relaxed, and with the help of quite a number of drugs Gram Parsons passed away.

Only a few months previously Parsons had been attending a funeral with Phil Kaufman – his road manager – and as the ceremony went on he came to a decision, this wasn’t how he wanted to leave the world. His ideal funeral would be a cremation, in the open dessert of Joshua Tree, so his ashes could become one with the place that made him happiest, it was then that he and Kaufman made a pact; whichever of them died first, the other would take their body out to Joshua Tree and burn it. As it turned out it wasn’t long before Kaufman was called to make good on his promise, so armed with a hearse, a hippy and a hell of a lot of booze Kaufman wandered in to Los Angeles International Airport and claimed the body of Gram Parsons before it could be shipped out to his family in New Orleans.

Everything up to this point is true, though for various reasons – which I’ll go into later – things from here on in deviate somewhat from the actual events, but that doesn’t stop Grand Theft Parsons from being a fantastically enjoyable ride. Kaufman (Johnny Knoxville) sets off into the desert in his hired psychedelic hearse with a rather reluctant hippy (Michael Shannon), in the throws of withdrawal and not entirely sure of what he’s doing, though he’s pretty sure that Kaufman’s story of being a coffin smuggler – burying stiffs in shoddy coffins and ‘recycling’ the expensive ones – doesn’t hold a lot of water. Apart from having the police on the lookout for their rather conspicuous mode of transportation they’re also being followed by Parsons father (Robert Forster), knowing only his son has been stolen, not knowing by whom or for what purpose, and Parson’s ex girlfriend (Christina Applegate) armed with a scrap of paper she claims to be his last will and testament, but it’ll get her nowhere if she can’t get a death certificate – and for that she’ll need his body.

Grand Theft Parsons gives Johnny Knoxville his first leading role, after supporting in the likes of Men in Black 2 and the little seen Big Trouble; he’s been cast as a goofball – which is natural really given his worldwide fame as one of the world’s most idiotic men due to his involvement in Jackass. It seems, however, that Knoxville isn’t entirely as idiotic as he makes himself out to be, the influence of the rest of the Jackass team seems to bring out the worst in all of them, but on his own Knoxville manages a subtle and effective performance, which is nicely punctuated by some genuinely funny moments. Shannon makes a fine foil for Knoxville, as the less than aware Larry Osterberg – a pseudonym created as Kaufman’s real partner in crime was last seen trying to find himself in the Australian outback, and unable to give his permission to be included in the movie – he provides the majority of the laughs through his ineptitude, not only as a criminal but just with the trappings of everyday life. He’s constantly trying to escape from Kaufman, but he just doesn’t have the will to walk away – not to mention his pacifist nature leaves him at somewhat of a disadvantage. Christina Applegate is also excellent as the tremendously evil ex Barbara, she doesn’t give a rats ass about laying Parsons to rest properly, she’s after his money and doesn’t care about his wishes or even the wishes of his family, making her a great bad guy to root against. Robert Forster is a fine counterpoint to that character, as although we know what he wants was not what Gram wanted, you do feel for him as a man just trying to bury the son he’s lost, meaning there are times where you question Kaufman’s actions, and considering the huge role the real Phil Kaufman had in making the movie it is a rather brave move to give the audience a chance to be rooting for someone other than himself.

The problem with Grand Theft Parsons though, is that you’re never really sure of the truth in what you’re watching. Whilst the commentary provides fantastic insight into what was real and what was created for the screen – and much of that will probably surprise you – at every turn in their misadventure you’ll find yourself scoffing at the ridiculousness of it all. In actual fact most of the things you can’t believe – the ones that seemed like they were invented to make the story a little more interesting than two guys driving in the desert – are the ones that are true, and most of the things that were made up were simply for legal reasons. It’s best to think of Grand Theft Parsons beginning with the old Dragnet adage – only the names have been changed to protect the innocent – and sit back and enjoy Kaufman’s crazy ride

The Picture

Sadly Grand Theft Parsons was not blessed with a massive budget, and as such the film isn’t the best looking you’ve ever seen. The film was shot on very grainy stock and sadly this does sometimes affect the transfer. Some scenes – particularly those shot in low light – do struggle and the effects are rather noticeable, with the grain becoming quite evident, but luckily the scorching desert hides a lot of the film’s problems, so you’re not constantly irritated.

The Sound

Provided with a choice of Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS 5.1 there, unsurprisingly, is little distinction between the two, but both are an enjoyable listen. It’s a mostly dialogue driven film, but being about a music star – and with the kind permission of Gram’s widow – the soundtrack plays a major role in the movie. It’s great to hear the music filling the room as you watch Bernice (that’s the name of the hearse) careering down the open desert roads, making Grand Theft Parsons an enjoyable, if unspectacular, listen.

The Extras

Commentary from Director David Caffrey and Phil Kaufman

Getting Kaufman in on this track was a masterstroke, as director David Caffrey isn’t the most verbose commentator you’ve ever heard, not to mention the fact that his voice sounds incredibly unenthusiastic, even when what he’s saying is a fond remembrance or high praise. Kaufman on the other hand hardly shuts up, and he’s full of information as he was there not only for the real thing but also a lot of production. He straightens out all the parts of the film that are true, and explains why changes had to be made. Barbara was an amalgamation of all of Parsons’ ex girlfriends, as even though he was married – though Kaufman was about to serve Gram’s wife with divorce papers when he died – he had ‘a girl in every venue’ and there were a lot of greedy little hands in the cookie jar, but the biggest change is with Parsons Sr. Gram’s real father had died, and his mother had remarried, neither she nor his step-father were particularly happy with his chosen career or how he lived his life. They were apparently a rather rich family, and pretty much disowned him, but their attitudes after his death weren’t all that dissimilar to the greedy ex girlfriends. According to Knoxville, Kaufman comes from a Vaudevillian family, something that doesn’t at all surprise listening to him, he’s full of little jokes and very entertaining, and strangely this guy that doesn’t come from a moviemaking background has provided one of the most entertaining - and certainly informative - commentary tracks I’ve heard in a long time.

Interviews with the Cast and Crew

Johnny Knoxville, Christina Applegate, Robert Forster, Marley Shelton, Michael Shannon, Phil Kaufman and David Caffrey all have their snippets of the electronic press kit presented here. Most of this is total fluff, apart from the contributions from Knoxville and Kaufman, and most of Kaufman’s thoughts are in the commentary anyway so you can safely turn this off after you’ve heard Knoxville tell the story of being mocked by a strange woman in New York about his facial hair.

Theatrical Trailer

Whilst the film contains a fair amount of witty back and forth bantering, there are relatively few one-liners and sight gags, so of course they can all be crow bared into three minutes, not to mention letting you know how the story turned out. Suffice to say I’m very glad I didn’t catch this trailer before I saw the movie.


The movie may not be an all time classic but it has some great performances and some very funny moments all wrapped up in a so-strange-it-had-to-be-real story. The disc isn’t so spectacular, sadly the relatively low budget of the movie has left it with less than amazing A.V. quality, but it rarely detracts from the film, and it’s certainly worth experiencing anyway. The commentary is the only special feature of note but it’s a cracker and a fantastic companion to the movie, I didn’t know a thing about Gram Parsons before settling down with this disc, and I feel like somewhat of an expert now – at least in the matters that followed his death - so this is definitely a low key disc that deserves a much higher profile.

7 out of 10
5 out of 10
7 out of 10
5 out of 10


out of 10

Last updated: 31/05/2018 01:53:20

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