Laurel Canyon is a very real place, but it comes off almost as a Brigadoon-style dream in the commemoration of the L.A. rock scene of the late ’60s and early ’70s that is director Alison Ellwood’s “Laurel Canyon.”
The first half the two-part docuseries on Epix, which premiered May 31, threw a spotlight onto the Byrds, Doors, Buffalo Springfield, Mamas and the Papas, Love, Frank Zappa and others who drove the counterculture in the years leading up to Woodstock, and how they were folksy neighbors in L.A.’s least urban enclave. In part 2, which bows Sunday night, Ellwood delves into the world of Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Linda Ronstadt, the Flying Burrito Brothers and, of course, the nascent band that previously was the subject of her “History of the Eagles” doc.
Variety spoke with Ellwood between the twin premieres about the making of the ravishingly well-received doc.
VARIETY: Was it a choice from the get-go not to have any of your subjects on-camera, and to just do audio interviews, aside from the two photographers, Henry Diltz and Nurit Wilde?
ELLWOOD: It was a decision out of the gate to do audio-only. We never thought of interviewing anyone on camera, with the exception of Henry and Nurit, who are sort of our guides through this, our documentarians. They’re physically showing us their photographs or their slides, so they have something to do on camera, not just talking. But we wanted it to be immersive and experiential. Especially when there are so many artists involved and you would keep popping out to different talking heads, it would have been taking you out of that moment. We also have, unfortunately, a number of the artists have passed away, and obviously we couldn’t interview them, and there would have been a disparity of who’s on-camera and who’s not.
Initially, people may think, “I want to see what David Crosby or Michelle Phillips looks like now.” But it would be easy to drift out of the movie if you start thinking about how people’s faces have changed. Obviously, if somebody wants to find out what Chris Hillman looks like now, there’s the Internet for that.
Exactly. It’s pretty easy to find out. Honestly, as people get older, they’re more self-conscious about how they look. And that’s been something that we’ve had to deal with rock docs in the past. [Laughs.] And, you know, the last thing you need is to have to keep reshooting things because people don’t like the way they look. But in any case, we were never going to do on-camera interviews for this. Interviews tend to be a little bit more personal and guard-down and casual when you don’t have a camera in their face. And pretty much everybody was excited to participate, which was great.
It sounds like the only people you couldn’t get were Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, who are just never going to be easy gets for anything.
We tried with both of them. We also tried honestly with Carole King and James Taylor as well, because they were also part of the scene — not quite to the same extent that the others were. But all those folks are people that, for whatever reason, don’t have much interest in doing these sorts of interviews. Thankfully for us, with Joni and Neil, there were tons of archival interviews. And there were quite a few archival interviews with Carole King as well, but she never talked about Laurel Canyon, so it felt like a bit of an outlier. If we had gotten her, we would have included her, for sure.
Was there anybody whose candor in the interviews most surprised you?
Pretty much everything gave great stuff. David Crosby wasn’t in the best mood when I did the interview with him —I walked away from that interview thinking it didn’t go that well — but he ended up saying a lot of good things. Johnny Echols (from the group Love) was just lovely. Jackson (Browne) was a little combative with me, which was fun. He’d say, “There’s nothing special about it. It’s a myth.” I’d say, “Okay! That’s your opinion.” [Laughs.]
You’d been wanting to do a film about this for 20 years, since you became fascinated with the Doors, so you were immersed in a lot of the lore. Were there any stories that you hadn’t heard before?
I didn’t know about Peter Tork being a nudist. I didn’t know about Steve Martin dating Linda Ronstadt. That was a funny story. I didn’t know about the Doors/Love connection [in which the latter band helped the Doors get a record deal, only to come to regret it]. I had no idea that Alice Cooper was tied to the canyon at all. That came as a total surprise. That story he told me about showing up at Frank’s at 7 a.m. for his audition [Cooper misunderstands that Zappa wanted him to come by the house the following night, not the following morning]— I mean, that’s just a classic, it’s so funny. And the fact that Zappa then said “Oh, no, go ahead. Do your thing,” and then he signed them.
There have been three other significant documentaries that touch on this scene in the last year and a half — obviously “Echo in the Canyon,” and then the docs about Crosby and Ronstadt. Did you make any editing choices as a result of those coming out first, because something already got covered there?
I intentionally didn’t watch any of those films before we finished this. Some folks on our team did, and they were aware of crossover footage, so some of the footage that was used in some of the other projects we stayed away from so we wouldn’t repeat. But in terms of style or anything like that, I was intentionally unaware of what they had done prior to finishing. And from the beginning, we knew what we wanted to do, so it wasn’t like we changed our course midway or anything.
How did you feel about ”Echo in the Canyon” coming first, knowing that so many people would compare the two?
Honestly, I didn’t really think that much about it. I was relieved to know that we didn’t have a lot of footage crossover to worry about. And I was relieved to know that they were only covering a specific time period, because I knew our project was much more extensive. I mean, that was their film by design, and our film was different by design.
That other film only covered a 1965-68 time frame, which left a lot of people wondering why there was nothing on the careers of Jackson Browne or Joni Mitchell or all these other names that are most associated with the canyon. Your part 1 ends in ’69, and you take it through the mid-‘70s in part 2. Was it pretty clear when to cut it off and say the scene had ended?
Yeah. We felt like the scene there really kicked in in ’65 once the Byrds were established, and by the time the Eagles make it big, by ‘75, the scene in Laurel Canyon had changed a lot. Most of the people had left. Prices had become much more expensive, so the new wave of artists, like the punk scene that was on their heels coming up, those folks couldn’t afford to be there, so that was sort of when the scene in Laurel Canyon sort of fizzled out. And I think the big thing that Linda explains is that they weren’t playing in the clubs anymore. There was a lot more money happening, and they were doing stadiums and arenas, and they weren’t playing for each other anymore.
How important was it to try to establish Laurel Canyon visually and geographically, for people who don’t really know L.A., since there aren’t a lot of visual landmarks in the canyon?
We kind of always felt like we wanted to make Laurel Canyon kind of a character in and of itself, that it had this mystique and was drawing all these people together. You know, it really was this atmosphere of doors unlocked and people floating in and out and bumping into each other and moving up and down the street from one another. And they were so close to the clubs, so they would go do the clubs and then the clubs would close at 2 and the party would continue up in the hills until the wee hours of the morning. What’s been fun in the canyon now, in the horrible age of Covid, is that they’ve brought back [some of that feel]. Everyone opens their doors on a certain night and plays all this music, so the music is sort of wafting through the canyon again.
One thing you establish is how unique L.A. is as a metropolis where you can be in this bustling commercial strip and in less than three minutes be in something that feels like the mountains, hearing the owls.
Yeah, it is, totally. I would argue, though, that you can’t get anywhere in Los Angeles in three minutes anymore. It could take you more than three minutes just to pass the Canyon Store [from Sunset Blvd.].
As you turn the corner from part 1 to part 2, there’s Altamont and the Manson murders. But you don’t dwell a lot on things suddenly all turning dark, because it wasn’t like that, with so much great, uplifting stuff to come after that from Joni, Jackson and CSNY. There’s a kind of darkening, but it still doesn’t really get dark at that point.
I think the tonal difference that we felt that we wanted to explore was that it wasn’t that the darkness itself became more — because all through part 1, the undertones of the civil rights scene were happening. The Vietnam war is raging, and these guys were all draft-eligible. So there was always darkness under all of that stuff. But I think that they became aware as people; they kind of grew up and became more aware of the darkness. Manson and Altamont happened, and those things were specifically tied to the music and to this hippie kind of movement, where suddenly hippies are considered (potentially) dangerous. That shifted, and I think the music shifted. I mean, “Ohio” is very different from “For What It’s Worth.” Even though “For What It’s Worth” has become the anthem for Vietnam, it wasn’t written about that initially. And I think a lot of people don’t know that. They don’t know it’s about kids trying to get into a club! [Laughs.] But it became about Vietnam for everybody. And I think that the artists matured and became more aware of their role in the world, and their activism began to emerge.
Did you ever worry about whether you would be able to keep people interested when so much of it is still photos or archival footage?
No, I always had faith. I mean, first of all, those stills are stunningly beautiful, and I think stills capture so much information and tell stories, and in some cases they’re better than moving pictures. We also shot a lot of super-8 to make it look like it was old footage. Sam Painter, our director of photography, had a lot of fun playing with some visuals to do B-roll, and sometimes people may not even know what’s archive and what we shot, and that was sort of fun. And we get a lot of helicopter shots, and we intentionally wanted to make those look modern and new; we weren’t trying to fake that. Ryan Suffern, one of the producers who was up in the helicopter, wants people to know those were not drone shots!
As far as vintage clips go, when you’ve got Neil Young talking to Dick Clark, it doesn’t get much better than that. And Henry Diltz — some of us didn’t realize that he had this folk music background as a member of the Modern Folk Quartet, before becoming a full-time photographer. Seeing him in those clips almost feels like you’re watching a spoof, like Spinal Tap as the Folksmen.
I know, it’s so funny, he’s so intense. And then even when they go electric and he’s like, “We don’t need to sing about the oxcart driver anymore,” you cut to him and he’s still so intense. He’s so cute, he’s such a character. He’s such a lovely man. I adore Henry.
And we still see Diltz out shooting at shows in L.A. all the time.
I don’t know whether you noticed on his arm, but the day we did the interview, he has a Troubadour wristband. He had been at the Troubadour the night before. He’s still living the life.
Rock doc aficionados will think of you as a music documentarian now, between “Laurel Canyon,” your upcoming Go-Go’s film and “History of the Eagles” a few years ago. But your career has been broader than that. How much do you want to stay on the music doc track or not get too typecast for that?
For me, as long as I’m learning something, I’m excited about a project. And music projects are so fun because, one, there’s the music, which is so great in and of itself, and then there are very interesting, volatile characters surrounding it, usually, which makes for good storytelling. Certainly, I love doing music docs, but I’m in development on two other things, neither of which have anything to do with music. I don’t want to get labeled that way, because it is actually a very small portion of my work. But I do love it.
You are not a lady of the canyon these days. You left L.A. and New York and you live on a horse farm in Massachusetts. Are horses of equal interest to movie making?
Well, I call myself now a filmmaker-farmer. I got tired of living in cities and I’ve been working remotely for pretty much 10 years. Obviously when I go out on shoots I travel — hopefully that will be able to happen again one day — but most of what I do can be done from home. I have an Avid system here so I can keep track of what’s going on with the edits on projects. … The horses came into my life about six years ago. It was not something I would ever have imagined getting involved with. I started rescuing with a couple of friends of mine, and then the place where we were keeping them was sold, and my beach house was selling, so I ended up buying a farm. And we make films with kids. They bond with the animals and we teach them about filmmaking. It’s called Film Farm.
Your Go-Go’s documentary, which premiered at Sundance in January, is coming on Showtime August 1. Were you working on that and “Laurel Canyon” at the same time, or has one or the other been done for a while?
It was pretty much simultaneous, but the shooting was broken up perfectly. We actually shot most of the Go-Go’s before we shot any of this, so the Go-Go’s was heavily into post by the time we started going into major production [on “Laurel Canyon”]. I was definitely juggling a couple of edits on both of those films, but I’ve done that before. and it was fine. Between the two of them, it was cool to be just living in the L.A. scene for 20 years, basically, from ‘65 to ’85.
(To read Variety’s review of “Laurel Canyon,” click here.)