By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
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Promotional materials for Fallen Angel: The Outlaw Larry Norman begin with the line, “Imagine the magnetism of Mick Jagger, the brilliance of Bob Dylan, the insanity of Brian Wilson all rolled into one, and you’ve only begun to unravel Larry Norman.”
The main message Di Sabatino hopes audiences take away from the film is that the title character was a broken man who still managed to move masses closer to God. Norman reminds Di Sabatino of the Old Testament’s Jacob, who manipulated people, even members of his own family, to win the blessing of God. “You’re left with a character that mesmerized people in a positive way, but offstage, he was a typical ’70s rocker, living that lifestyle,” the filmmaker says.
There is an amazing scene near the documentary’s opening in which Norman dances wildly to an instrumental break that would not sound out of place on Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell. He was, as one fellow musician remarks onscreen, a “dazzling showman” at happenings that were part concert, part sermon. With his long, straight, whitish-blond hair and fair skin, he appeared as if he emerged from the same gene pool that produced Greg and Duane Allman or Edgar and Johnny Winter; to his former wife, Pamela Newman, he looked “like an angel.”
His former People! mates say in Fallen Angel that as the band became more successful, Norman became more secretive and difficult, and by the time their debut album, I Love You, hit store shelves in 1968, he was gone. Norman later claimed Capitol had minimized the album’s spiritual message, having led him to believe it would be titled after his song “We Need a Whole Lot More of Jesus, and a Lot Less Rock and Roll.” He also alleged members of the band gave him an ultimatum to embrace Scientology or quit. But People! members onscreen deny the Scientology and Capitol claims, saying I Love You was always going to be the album title. “The entire time I was in People!, I did not know his religious beliefs,” one former band mate says.
As a solo artist, Norman was recognized as a “Christian celebrity who had a secular punch.” In 1971, Time magazine called him “probably the top solo artist in the field,” while Billboard proclaimed him to be “the most important songwriter since Paul Simon.” He recorded for Capitol and MGM before going independent in the mid-1970s and creating his own label, Solid Rock Records, where he signed the Christian country-rock group Daniel Amos, who had previously recorded under Calvary Chapel’s Costa Mesa-based Maranatha! Music label, and Randy Stonehill, whose 1976, Norman-produced Welcome to Paradise was deemed the third most important contemporary Christian album ina mid-1980s poll of music critics. As the film shows, Norman mentored Stonehill in the business and introduced him to God, something Stonehill says he is eternally grateful for.
And then everything blew up. Members of Daniel Amos allege Norman screwed up the release of their album Horrendous Disc; Stonehill alleges Norman screwed him out of songwriting royalties. Oh, yeah, and he and just about everyone at Solid Rock not named Larry Norman allege he was screwing Stonehill’s wife, an indiscretion compounded by the fact that Norman was still married to Newman, while Stonehill was out on tour. Several Solid Rock executives, employees and artists re-live for Fallen Angel “an intervention” during which they confronted their boss, who “exploded.” Says one witness, “Our family was over.”
Norman disappeared from public for years after that, and there were rumors he was living in a cave in the Hollywood Hills. After he reappeared, the film shows several people saying Norman blamed his former bad behavior on a head injury he suffered in 1978 when the middle section of an airplane he was sitting in fell on his head. Newman adds that Norman told her his family had a history of mental illness—but not him because he had Jesus. The most heart-wrenching Norman story that Fallen Angel follows involves him having fathered a child out of wedlock in the late 1980s. Stonehill breaks down as he recounts being approached on tour in Australia in 2005 by then-17-year-old Daniel Robinson, who claimed to be the son Norman never took care of—despite the Father of Christian Rock running a charity that sponsored abandoned children. Fallen Angel tries mightily to resurrect Norman’s character near the end, and a segment near the end of him strumming a guitar and pouring his soul out before a large cross is steeped in haunting poignancy.
It is a story that is told well, based on the “rich and intense” rough cuts of Fallen Angel Stonehill has seen.
“I just applaud the integrity with which the whole story has been approached,” he says. “David is committed to telling the truth—that’s of vital importance to him—and the sense I get is he has tried to capture the big truth, which can be tough at times and has some sharp edges.”
Stonehill sees in the film “Larry’s brilliance, his vision, and you see us with our youthful folly and brokenness, and ultimately, this is really a story of God’s grace because the Gospel message got through and it was communicated in a really crucial way—the musical vernacular of the day—at a crucial juncture in our culture.”