Occasionally a high-profile film or TV documentary arrives at just the right time to appear as if it were created to address the frustrations created by another high-profile documentary, however coincidental the timing. That’s certainly the case with Alison Ellwood’s “Laurel Canyon,” a feature-length doc about the Los Angeles rock scene of the ‘60s and ‘70s that’s airing as a two-parter on Epix on May 31 and June 7. It’s not exactly an “answer song” to “Echo in the Canyon,” a much-debated 2018 theatrical release that covered a lot of the same ground, but it does address a few important questions left hanging by its predecessor. Like: “Where the hell was Joni Mitchell?” She’s in this one — there are two shots of her within the first minute of the credit sequence, to immediately reassure us there will be ladies of, and in, the canyon this time around.
The biggest problem with the previous doc — other than how it betrayed, rather than transcended, its origins as a glorified EPK for a Jakob Dylan duets project — was that it arbitrarily set a cutoff date for the end of the movie, with the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield breaking up in the late ‘60s, as if that really marked the end of an era. It was like seeing a promising pilot for a series that never got green-lit, leaving out not just Mitchell but Jackson Browne, the Eagles and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young as Joni-come-latelies. Ellwood’s “Laurel Canyon” happily extends the timeline into the mid-‘70s. That affords us milestones like the arrivals of Browne and Mitchell in the woodsy ‘hood as baby-faced wizard-cherubs, the Mitchell/Graham Nash live-in romance that produced the song “Our House,” country music supplanting folk as the dominant extra ingredient in the rock stew. It also allows for the advents of David Geffen, arena-rock and cocaine, any one of which the canyon’s casual vibe might not have survived.
Ellwood, the director of “History of the Eagles,” a movie that was weirdly liked by Eagles fans, detractors and even the actual Eagles (and who also helmed Showtime’s terrific upcoming Go-Go’s documentary), does her best to occasionally darken the door of this bungalow heaven. Long shadows are cast from a world beyond the canyon (Kent State, Altamont) and, in the horrifying case of the Manson murders, within it. But let’s face it: this project exists as an excuse to indulge in highly warranted nostalgia for a golden age, enveloped in a slightly-above-the-smog-level golden haze. “Laurel Canyon” is a nearly four-hour exercise in bliss, throwing us back to a fleeting time when musical warmth and formal excellence went hand in hand and made the whole world want to go “California Dreamin’.” With apologies to Joni Mitchell, this, not Woodstock, is the garden you’ll be left wanting to get back to.
One of the questions no one asked after seeing “Echo in the Canyon” was: “Where the hell is Alice Cooper?” But he’s in this, too, not in his later guise as a shock-rocker, but as a kid arriving fresh outta Phoenix in the late ‘60s as a protégé of (and next door neighbor to) the canyon’s log-cabin-dwelling freak outlier, Frank Zappa. Most of the names are more expected ones: Love, the Doors, the Flying Burrito Brothers. But that Zappa and especially Cooper come up for mention is a good example of Ellwood not keeping her focus too narrow in search of a common theme.
Commingling was the order of the day, with an almost comical disorder to the roommate assignments — fatefully, as when Stephen Stills was nixed for a role in “The Monkees” because of his imperfect smile, so he sent his housemate Peter Tork instead, with mutually happy results for both the counterculture and moptop American TV. At times, it feels like the whole scene was a precursor to Fleetwood Mac’s eventual romantic complications, writ even larger when it came to the Mamas and the Papas’ cross-entanglements, or half of CSNY being more in love with Mitchell than she was with them. After a funny bit in which Steve Martin admits he wasn’t sexually aggressive enough in dating Linda Ronstadt (for whom he used to regularly open at the Troubadour), she talks about how she and the boyfriend she eventually settled in with, JD Souther, would “go through some horrible row, and he’d write a song about it and I’d sing it. It was great.” It sure was.
In dramatizing all this, Ellwood takes a bold leap by keeping almost all her interview subjects off-screen and limited to audio-only reminiscings, except for two. Legendary photographer Henry Diltz is the first person we see in contemporary footage, and he’s almost the last, too, eventually joined by another shutterbug, Nurit Wilde. Looking at these two looking at contact sheets permits them to be unofficial narrators, although Ellwood doesn’t overdo that as a a gambit. It’s a little frustrating, at first, to gradually figure out that we’re never going to see the 21st century faces of, among others, Browne, Crosby, Stills, Chris Hillman, Richie Furay, Robbie Krieger, Michelle Phillips or Love’s Johnny Echols. (There’s so much interesting chat from that latter guitarist, we could almost subtitle this “Echols in the Canyon.”) But the wisdom of that choice quickly becomes apparent. Ellwood does use a fair amount of audio from deceased subjects like Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek, Cass Ellliot, Arthur Lee and Bryan MacLean, so putting everyone in voiceover, instead of just the dead, puts everyone back on the same mortal coil, for cinematic purposes. It also keeps us from getting too caught up in anything so spell-breaking as the inevitable comparison of smooth-cheeked faces to craggy ones. (That’d be as disruptive to the vibe as if Quentin Tarantino had subjected Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt to a 50-years-later flash forward in his movie about the era.) And, while this probably wasn’t a quid pro quo, having Diltz and Wilde as the only two modern faces on screen does afford an entree into an astonishing array of still photos that’ve rarely or never been seen before.
Exulting over how phenomenal these hundreds of photographs are may not be the best way of doing a sales job on “Laurel Canyon,” so you may have to take our word, going into it, that the ongoing succession of them does add up to a real motion picture. But there’s an unexpected wealth of vintage clips, too, from home movies to the sight of Neil Young yakking it up with Dick Clark on the Springfield’s “American Bandstand” debut. (Young is one of the few living mainstays of the scene who apparently did not sit for an interview with Ellwood. That’s not surprising for mercurial Neil: His participation in the previous “Echo of the Canyon” amounted to allowing himself to be shot playing guitar in the studio through a glass partition for the end credits.) The only newly shot footage consists mostly of drone shots of the canyon, or quick footage of sports cars racing through the curvy streets that could almost be second-unit stuff from “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
Geographically, there’s less “there there” as a place than Gertrude Stein imagined in her wildest dreams of a featureless Oakland, so pity the poor music fan who grew up in the Midwest dreaming about the mythos of Laurel Canyon, then came to town as a tourist, finding that the sole landmark or photo-op was the unassuming Canyon Country Store. That presents some challenges for Ellwood in trying to present a feel for “Laurel Canyon” that amounts to more than a series of TV clips or stills of Mama Cass’s all-star backyard parties. Yet she does succeed in establishing it as a physical locale in which all the “arteries and capillaries” that lead off of the canyon’s one main thoroughfare metaphorically stand in for musical stems and branches — except the music never took us into a dead end.
But maybe nothing speaks more to Laurel Canyon’s status as an idyll than the series of photos Diltz took when he first met Joni Mitchell, when she stood leaning and chatting outside her window before he ever entered the house. It conjures up the myth, or reality, of a woodsy small town in which masterpieces are being conjured up at any stop along the way in a rural dell. You very much get a sense of what was lost when, as Michelle Phillips points out, she and her husband led L.A. rock stars’ migration west to ritzier canyons. “Bel Air Dreamin'” just didn’t have a ring to it, and it wouldn’t be long before the edgier sounds coming out of New York in the mid-’70s offered some course correction to what had been bucolic turning to bloat.
David Crosby — who the movie spends almost no time painting as a jerk, maybe since that was already covered so well in “Echo” and his own documentary — is the one who gets to make the final sales pitch: “There are periods in history when there are peaks and nobody really knows why. Paris in the ‘30s. The renaissance in Italy. Los Angeles around ‘65 to ‘75.” Maybe he’s actually underselling it, though. The rest of the world will always have Paris, but among those of us who never stopped buying into the California rock dream, who wouldn’t trade a whole Renaissance for just one CSN “do-do-do-do-do, do, do, do-do-do-do” harmonic convergence of a coda? How “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” it was.
“Laurel Canyon” premieres on Epix in two parts May 31 and June 7, at 9 p.m. ET/6 PT.
(For an interview with director Alison Ellwood, click here.