Laurel Canyon’s countercultural history explored in new doc airing now on epix

Throughout history there have been communities where creative people gather, attracting like-minded artists who create something that becomes a legacy. Usually it involves low rent. In Los Angeles, the woody hills above Sunset with its cul de sacs and affordable rentals helped nurture what was also the natural sounding outgrowth of folk into rock in the late ’60s with occasional twangs of country.

More than 50 years after its heyday, Laurel Canyon has been heralded of late in documentary films. First came Jakob Dylan’s Echo in the Canyon, which was built around interviews with surviving originators alongside rehearsals for a contemporary salute to the bands. After a short run in theaters last year, it’s now showing on Netflix. Now comes the more expansive Laurel Canyon, a two-part, two-night, four-hour film that premiered on epix Sunday (May 31) and concludes this Sunday (June 7) and is available on demand.

With the goofy catchphrase of “Everything They Touched Turned to Music” it aims to capture a magic time when guitars rang through the hallows and The Byrds, The Turtles, Frank Zappa, and The Doors were all neighbors, more often trading joints than cups of sugar, and always apparently open to drop over and jam.

Alison Ellwood, whose previous similar extended music documentary was History of the Eagles, begins with what looks like it will be a ton of previously unseen or otherwise rare home movies of activities in Laurel Canyon, when handheld movie cameras were just another avenue of creativity for those capturing the freewheeling spirit of the era.

But soon that makes way to a lot of still photographs, most of which are still compelling. In fact, the major on-camera modern interviews occur not with the musicians involved but two photographers, Henry Diltz, the former member of the Modern Folk Quartet, who became a major chronicler of rock; and Nurit Wilde, a photographer who also became romantically involved with a couple of the subjects as well.

Either through filmmakers’ choice or the vanity of aging rock stars, we don’t see the faces of even the most talkative musicians in contemporary interviews, from David Crosby to Don Henley. It was the same method used in the 2012 Rolling Stones documentary Crossfire Hurricane—as if we’re to meant to forever remember our heroes in their glowing, lithe youth rather than in the inevitable wrinkles a half century later.

In Laurel Canyon, it’s also a good way to fold into the narrative voices of the many artists no longer around to tell their tale, taken from unspecified interviews of the past, including Cass Elliott, a major figure in the film, to Arthur Lee, Frank Zappa, the manager and record executive Elliot Roberts (to whom the film is dedicated) and Peter Tork—whose death last year came during filming and gets special note.

A four hour documentary means there is space to include longer musical performances from various film archives. But it also gives license to go a little wayward in the story, including such 1960s milestones as the Monterey Pop Festival (which, yes, the Mamas and Papas’ John Phillips helped organize), Woodstock (where Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young performed, but only CSN were seen in the film) and Altamont (where the Flying Burrito Brothers tried to cool down the crowd before all hell broke loose). All films about the era have to shoehorn war and protest somehow, and Laurel Canyon does, though Neil Young’s “Ohio” and its flip side is the only example of activism.

To Ellwood, so well versed in all things Eagles, it’s probably natural that the film culminates with the creation of that rather bland superstar group that came out of Linda Ronstadt’s backing band, as if it were the ultimate expression of the canyon. Actually, it’s that mass success—preceded by that of CSN—that probably put a pin in the rural, down-home bubble of the place.

Like Echo in the Canyon, this overview begins with the Byrds, and while their sound is significant, I’m surprised that Zappa’s legacy is once more diminished. He was one of the first hippie settlers there—in 1966, he moved into the old cabin where Tom Mix once lived (that fascinating early Hollywood history of the neighborhood is only touched upon late in the film, by Little Feat’s Paul Barrere, who also died last year).

Zappa gets mention in the film primarily for signing Alice Cooper to his label. Cooper’s own association with the canyon seems peripheral; and while The Doors figure prominently in the film, it’s never clear how they fit in or were otherwise influenced by the neighborhood that gave us “Love Street.”

On the other hand, Joni Mitchell’s affect on the area was supreme, working with David Crosby as her first producer, living with Graham Nash, mesmerizing a visiting Eric Clapton with her fingerpicking style or painting when she wasn’t writing. She’s also seen singing along to Jackson Browne’s “Take It Easy” in an art gallery opening where an early version of the Eagles were headlining (playing “Witchy Woman” over and over because they didn’t know that many songs). Mitchell doesn’t seem to be newly interviewed for the film; but her old quotes are eye opening, especially about one drug trip seems to have altered her direction permanently. Her performances are also illuminating.

If solo women seemed missing from Jakob Dylan’s film, Ellwood makes up for it, with an emphasis on Mitchell, and in the second half, Ronstadt. But I can never understand why neither film mentions Carole King, whose Tapestry certainly seemed an artistic and commercial crowning achievement of the area, even as its cover shot created for millions the notion of Laurel Canyon home decor. Likewise, James Taylor is only briefly glimpsed, though Bonnie Raitt and Lowell George are.

Ellwood creates an elegiac world of Laurel Canyon, mixing old photos with new footage of the beautiful area, often riding through the canyon road as if re-creating the ride of Mama Cass in her 1966 Porsche or Alfa Romeo convertibles. The mesmerizing driving scenes on empty, windy streets call to mind scenes from Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and there are some surprising connections to the Manson killings. They occurred in Benedict Canyon, but Laurel Canyon resident Mark Vollman of The Turtles, says he went to high school with a couple of Charlie’s young followers.

Johnny Echols, the co-founder of the band Love, is a fascinating storyteller in the film, and recalls when Manson murderer Bobby Beausoleil was a member of Arthur Lee’s earlier incarnation, The Grass Roots (different from the San Francisco hitmakers). Of course the site of the Tate murders was the rented home of record producer Terry Melcher, who turned down recording Manson. (Still, the film doesn’t go into the fact that the Beach Boys, led by longtime Laurel Canyon resident Brian Wilson, actually recorded a Manson song).

The Beach Boys get no mention at all, and other groups deemed pop, from The Turtles to The Monkees, seem to get short shrift, though their collaborations were sometimes more interesting than their parties, as when Zappa appeared in the weird 1968 Monkees film Head.

Some notable things are gleaned from the old interviews dug up: Neil Young left Buffalo Springfield because he was embarrassed by their lack of success; CSN started to splinter when Stephen Stills extended his solo slot from two to five songs at a concert that Bob Dylan was attending.

Ellwood wraps the era not with the Eagles success but with the death of Cass Elliott in 1974 at 32; it seems arbitrary as her demise, but she was seen as a central social figure in the scene. And if Jakob Dylan got Crosby to admit he had been a asshole in his film, Ellwood accomplishes pretty much the same thing when she quotes him in the conclusion as comparing the brief Laurel Canyon era, pleasant as it was, to Paris in the ’20s and the Renaissance of the Middle Ages.

Laurel Canyon premiered on epix on May 31 and repeats on June 7 at 9PM.

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