Taking a welcome detour from has-been celebrities, VH1 joins with Sundance Channel (which will repeat the project starting June 16) on this four-hour documentary, which brings a refreshingly un-jaundiced eye to illicit drug use and its impact — then and presumably now — on the so-called “culture wars.” The first two hours provide fascinating insight into the growth of the counterculture, music’s influential role, how its imagery was adopted by movies and Madison Avenue, and the eventual hangover. All told, it certainly merits tuning in, whether or not you turn on and drop out.
Not surprisingly, the Beatles play a recurring role in the opening chapters, from Bob Dylan introducing them to marijuana to the psychedelic period illustrated by the animated “Yellow Submarine.”
Producers Dana Heinz Perry and Hart Perry note that drug-taking was relatively rare prior to the ’60s, whereas now more than half the U.S.’ adult population has at least tried an illicit substance. Much of the narrative is derived from the book “Can’t Find My Way Home: America in the Great Stoned Age” by Martin Torgoff, who serves as a sort-of tour guide through the Haight-Ashbury district — and how San Francisco became “the LSD capital of the world” — the summer of love and Woodstock.
Along the way, there are plenty of knowing interviews and amusing clips, among them CBS News’ Harry Reasoner strolling through the Haight in a crisp white suit — surrounded by love children and hippies — and over-the-top anti-drug sequences on “Dragnet,” reflecting the establishment reaction to the counterculture.
Music, it’s noted, provided the period’s soundtrack, and the documentary weaves in deftly chosen clips of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, whose early deaths highlighted drug abuse’s ugly side, helping to cast a pall over the good feelings as the decade ended.
Still, several of the journalists interviewed here suggest it was only the marriage of drug use to the anti-war movement that finally alarmed the government into action. The eclectic roster of voices also includes footage of drug gurus Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey, as well as the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and the Doors’ Ray Manzarek.
Far from a whitewash, the Perrys’ breezy approach explores the use of drugs minus any finger-wagging and frankly contemplates events that made the era appear less benign in hindsight, including violence that erupted at the Rolling Stones’ Altamont concert in 1969 and Charles Manson’s claims he found inspiration for his murderous spree in the Beatles’ music.
Parts three and four (subtitled “Teenage Wasteland” and “Just Say No”) shift first to the 1970s — including the emerging popularity of cocaine during the disco era — and the “more censorious perspective” that fueled the Reagan administration’s “war on drugs” crusading. That’s a lot of ground to cover, but based on the first half, it sounds worth checking out.
Then again, I might just get totally wasted and pass out on the couch.