Friday, March 06, 2009

Movie Review- "Fallen Angel: The Outlaw Larry Norman"

I first heard of Larry Norman when I was 7.  Some well meaning producers used his song "(You've Been) Left Behind" for the Apocalypse movie "Thief in the Night".  The whole experience almost literally scared the hell out of me.  

When I rediscovered his music in the early '90s, I set aside old grudges and was willing to forgive him.  At the time, I found his music fairly refreshing.  It was gritty and honest, and most of the time he spoke of hope.  His songs, which were almost 20 years old at the time still rang true to the lives of those following Jesus in a fallen, broken world.  And they were theologically sound (mostly, except for the whole rapture thing).  It was a contrast to most Christian music of that time which was just starting to expand from a musical niche to a full blown industry.  His music occasionally wandered into musical propaganda, but at his creative peaks he surpassed the "Christian singer" label and was recognized as a brilliant songwriter and true artist.  At least, in my humble opinion. 

More than two decades earlier Larry Norman was a true pioneer of Christian music.  His songs reached a generation of new Christians who at the time had very few options in terms of music that spoke to them.  He died in February of 2008 heart failure.

"Fallen Angel: TOLN" is a movie that examines the life of Larry Norman beyond his music and takes a closer look at his life.  My experience of "FA: TOLN" includes a brief  Q and A with the filmmaker and also Larry's son.  

To the fans of Larry Norman's music this film is probably going to be disappointing, if not down right heartbreaking.  In short, it seems Norman had some problems walking the walk and talking the talk.  Interviews by friends and fellow musicians (some of which are my all time favorites) give evidence to the fact that Norman could be self centered, manipulative, egotistical, and full of pride.  In other words, he was an artist.  None of this should come as a shock to anybody who has known anyone that has "artistic leanings".  The film also exposes some of the greater sins of a man who professed to be a follower of Jesus and his teachings.  These include, but are not limited to: adultery, lying, and stealing.  The heartbreaking aspect of "FA: TOLN" indicates that Norman never owned up to any of these, and in fact kept practicing them well into his later years.

The film itself seems to have a definitive agenda.  One can get a feel for said agenda in the opening 2 minutes of the film.  The problem I have with "FA:TOLN" is that as documentary a film should be objective.   Given the nature of the subject, I can understand how difficult that might be.  Apparently, Norman's family objected to the making of the film and did not participate.  Again,  I can understand how difficult that would be to make a film like this completely balanced.  But the language of the film's narrative seems to present the film's agenda.  

Was Larry Norman a man called by God who lost his way?  Was he a crazy man with a gift? Or was he a master manipulator that saw a void that could be filled and used it solely for his own personal gain?  Despite the filmmaker's intention to present all three arguments, the film seems to lean heavily to the third.  Asked about the use of animation during what could have been some fairly poignant exposition about Randy Stonehill's conversion, the director claimed it was used to "break up" the monotony of talking heads and overused photographs.  What gets communicated seemed to be a wink and a nudge to the audience indicating "Can you believe these guys?"  The movie also seems to run out of images in the last few minutes,  displaying photos that seem to have little to do with the audio that is playing.

In the later moments of "FA: TOLN", there are some heartfelt moments given to Randy Stonehill, Terry Taylor, Mike Roe, and a host of others who give credit to Norman for his accomplishments as an artist and songwriter.  It is quite moving to see Stonehill, who was severely wronged by Norman repeatedly, affirm how it was possible for God to use Larry Norman and his songs to communicate the truths of Christ's redeeming work to mankind in spite of Norman's  continued deliberate deceptions. 

If there were any redeeming qualities of Norman's character, "FA:TOLN" does not introduce us to them.  It is a compelling film, one that makes you hope things work out for those involved. The movie also has a killer soundtrack filled with music that holds up decades later.  In addition to Norman's music, Randy Stonehill's music is featured prominently.  I saw this movie with a friend who had no idea who Larry Norman was, or that there was even a "Jesus People movement".  He was inspired to learn more about both.  He also made me feel really, really old.  For me, the movie is worth seeing.  The more people exposed to Norman's music the better.   

I give "Fallen Angel: The Outlaw Larry Norman" 2 and 1/2 out of 5 ponchos.

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At 5:23 PM, Anonymous Jon Reid said...

Excellent review, Joe. I finally got around to posting mine:

At 7:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice review. Anyone who has ever been in a band or has an ex wife is an easy mark for mud slingers. Frankly I don't believe much of what was said in Failed Angle. And why wait until Mr. Norman is dead to release the film? Finally, Randy's tears were the best bit of acting in the film.

I would write a more detailed review but I doubt anyone beyond San Jose will ever see Fallen Angel.

At 5:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What makes you think David Di Sabatino "waited until Mr Norman had died" ? .. How could David have possibly known when Larry was going to die ? David has been working on this project for "years"

The next screening is at Newport Beach Film Festival in late April . So guess people outside San Jose will see it after all :)

At 4:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a copy of the film. I've watched it twice. It's a go nowhere film by a go nowhere film maker. Still, after a year of web-publicity, it still falls short to nill on proof...just the rehashing of what people have to say, and clearly have held as offense for 20-30 years. Let it go. He was a man...full of Jesus, and perhaps bad in business. What a stupid film. And anyone who thinks this is fact filled or definitive is sadly mistaken. It's rubbish!

At 4:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The film itself seems to have a definitive agenda. One can get a feel for said agenda in the opening 2 minutes of the film."

Unfortunately said agenda would seem to be to expose LN as hypocrite (rather than a sinner saved by grace as Larry was the first to admit...listen to his lyrics) and to discredit his ministry.

The analogy of a messy divorce is a good one.
This is Larry Norman through the eyes of those who have been hurt and are still hurting.

Randy's claim to be demonstrating his love and forgiveness for his brother by broadcasting (Randy's version of) Larry's sins to the world...seems to be somewhat lacking in internal consistency, to put it mildly.

Anyone with any experience of life and relationships has to recognise that this is only one side of the story...and undoubtedly there is an agenda...

I also agree that the more people that get to hear Larry's music - gritty, real & powerful- the better.

At 11:33 PM, Blogger Joe Garcia said...

Hey fellas, thanks for stopping by. I appreciate your comments.

Just a couple of things:

I still dig Randy Stonehill, and don't really have an issue with him telling his story. He seemed genuine enough to me. And if there is bitterness in the man, I didn't sense any from his appearance in the movie.

And I guess I could have stated in more strongly in the review, but I can understand why Norman's family didn't want to take part in the film. I've had some time to think about it. Di Sabatino, while presenting an informative film (at least to me), definitely paints his "characters" with very broad strokes. There are good guys and bad guys and there is very little gray. This seemed to be the case with his Frisbee doc also.

At 12:29 PM, Blogger Peter Loewen said...

Did Norman ever apologize for boinking Stonehill's wife or for stealing his royalties?

At 3:45 PM, Blogger clay said...

I suspect that, when they next meet, Stonehill might have a few apologies of his own to make...

One day, when the books of all of our lives are opened, we will know exactly how much or how little truth there has been behind any of these allegations. At that point, I imagine that we will be much too sickened by our own sins (and much too grateful for having been forgiven) to have any heart to jump in and condemn either of our brothers.

In the meantime why don't we leave it up to God to be the judge? He is the only one who can be truly objective, and not one of us can measure up to His standards.

“He came to pay a debt He didn’t owe because we owed a debt we couldn’t pay.”

At 10:49 PM, Blogger Joseph said...

All Bible Characters have very evident flaws. The Bible doesn't hide these. It uses their example to show the rest of us flawed, broken creatures that despite our flaws, we can have a close relationship with our maker, generally it takes being alone and out of the public eye. I believe that God gave Larry these songs when they were alone together. Larry's life would have been so much easier had he written and performed for the secular world. He could have pranced around the stage like that spoiled child, Mick, cursed God and lapped up the fame and fortune. But instead he chose to give the rest of us a message. For someone as talented as Larry, it must have been a huge daily struggle to keep his talent under wraps this way. Now that he's gone who speaks for him and defends him? His brother and a couple of friends? And who speaks against? That whole artifical and sanctemonious church body that still needs healing. They just don't get it!! Say what you will, but one day you're gonna see Larry at the head of Heaven's choir with street people USA!! And he'll still have all the good music! By the way, I think he was apologizing to us all everytime he sang, "I am a servant" and I want to join him. My God we're so close, you'd better get wrapped up tight.

At 10:06 AM, Blogger Mark Pettigrew said...

I can't really comment on the movie because I haven't seen it. But I was enormously influenced by Larry in the seventies, so it breaks my heart to read about the tragic things that happened to him later in life (in terms of his health). It breaks my heart even more to learn about instances in which he allegedly deviated from his commitment to Christ, insofar as his personal behavior was concerned. It would be easier for me on a personal level if I could just dismiss Larry as a con man, but I still believe that my initial intuitions about him were correct. I believe that he genuinely loved Jesus, just as King David loved God in spite of his obvious flaws.

I also believe that Larry's music was some of the most radical music ever made by any musician, secular or Christian, because he dared to discuss the relevance of Christianity to everyday life, in an unprecedented way. Who else could openly sing about venereal disease and drug addiction (as he did in "Why Don't You Look Into Jesus?") and do so in such a way as to bring glory to God? The late sixties and early seventies desperately needed that kind of honesty, and even if Larry wasn't as honest as he should have been in his private life, his songs were nothing if not brutally honest.

Life as a Christian has been far more complex than I ever imagined it would be when I first got saved, particularly in terms of grappling with the fallenness of this world, and in terms of grappling with the flaws of Christian leaders who ought to know better than to act the way they sometimes act. But I still hold fast to the hope of glory which motivated Larry to write and sing his sweet songs of salvation. And I hope that when this life of travail is over, I'll meet Larry on the other side.

At 6:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I saw the movie, a few times in fact. It doesn't give real answers to the questions it raises.

A hand full of people are making claims that seem awkward to me. This claims aren't back-upped with facts. It's a one sided view at things.

Not once is Larry's view at a given subject presented. That says enough I think.

Besides that, on the Unclerandslist (Yahoo group) a guy asked a question to David Di Sabatino. He asked if David really said in the past that he 'would get even' with Larry. David answered 'yes', and some other stuff. It's still up, you can read it yourselves. That does it for me. This movie is made by a man who hates Larry's guts, an acts likewise. He could have presented so much other stuff, but choose to follow this damaging road. I'm sorry for the good people who lent their name to this movie, but I think they should have known. Sad.

At 11:52 AM, Blogger whokilledduncan said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 9:59 PM, Blogger Film said...

I have to say that I was really disappointed in the poor quality of this movie. It was like watching a high school project for history day. Poor sound quality, no creativity with camera angles, and filmed in 4:3 for crying out loud! And what was up with the narrators? I felt like I was listening to a golf announcer.

And what about the inconsistencies in the film? Example: At one point Daniel Amos states that the way Larry released one of their albums represented the end of their careers in the Christian music industry. Yet later the film says that they went on to be very successful in Christian music after Solid Rock and released more than a dozen more albums. What poor story telling.

I hope someone with more skills takes on this project. The story deserves much better than it got.

At 5:29 PM, Blogger failedangle said...

I hope this comment won't be erased like Derek's one.

It seems that Fallen Angel doesn't tell the truth, in fact sometimes plain lies. Find out for yourselves:

At 3:55 PM, Blogger Alan Coughlin said...

If there is one absolutely minimal requirement for a documentary film, it is that it must at least try to present the truth. Documentarians have a special obligation to the world as they are documenting history for posterity. If they fail to accurately represent the truth, they have deceived countless people for a prolonged period until someone comes along and corrects the record. This film is not just careless with the facts, or accidentally reporting inaccuracies, this film is a deliberate effort by the filmmaker to misrepresent the facts about a highly accomplished musical evangelist and respected teacher and leader in the Christian community. In short, it is a hit piece.

David Di Sabatino, who has only one other film to his credit (which was also a hit piece on a Christian leader, Lonnie Frisbee), broke every rule of honest documentary film making. First of all, there is no documentation in this documentary. My dictionary gives the following definition for a documentary: 1. Consisting of, concerning, or based on documents. 2. Presenting facts objectively without editorializing or inserting fictional matter, as in a book or film. Yet, in this film, the filmmaker sought out and included statements only from people who had grudges against him. There were a great many people who knew Larry Norman very well for an extended period of time whose statements were not sought. When family members offered to provide documentation falsifying the film's claims they were rejected and not even mentioned in the film. The strongest and most slanderous allegations of the film are pure innuendo. The few people with grudges who derided Larry were represented as typical cases of people that knew Larry. They were not.

Furthermore, with one minor exception, no one interviewed in the film had been involved in Larry's life in over 30 years! There are many people that have expressed shock by the overt and destructive lies that they heard in this film and that have said they personally know the allegations presented to be false or contrary to their experience, yet their opinions were not included.

See the film, but watch it with a critical eye.

(I was a personal friend of Larry's for the last 30 years of his life and can personally vouch for Larry's impeccable character. He was a man of the highest integrity, had a deep and sincere love for God, and was filled with love for everyone he met. And he never stopped talking to people about the love of Jesus!)


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