Picture the scene: Eric Clapton is visiting America for the first time, touring with his band Cream. He lands in Los Angeles and calls “Mama” Cass Elliott of the Mamas and the Papas, who he’d met in England. Cass picks him up at the airport and takes him to her home, where a party is in progress: among many other guests, Micky Dolenz, drummer and lead singer of The Monkees, is experimenting with a 16mm camera, while Joni Mitchell is playing acoustic guitar in a bizarre alternate tuning that much-vaunted guitar god Clapton has never heard of. David Crosby and Stephen Stills, both newly unattached after leaving the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield, respectively, are in the other room working at an Everly Brothers, acoustic duo kind of vibe, until an Englishman who just quit The Hollies turns up and joins Crosby and Stills to sing harmony, and everyone just sort of marvels at the vocal blend. Or maybe they just pass the doob and think nothing of it, because this kind of thing happens all the time.
For five weeks, while seemingly all of America was absorbed by a certain ten-hour documentary about a certain beloved basketball player, I couldn’t help wondering: what are the nerds and English majors and art-school grads and anyone else who never followed sports to do? Where’s our deluxe giant-sized walk down memory lane?
Epix has heard our pleas, fellow indoor kids, and answers with Laurel Canyon, a two-part documentary by Allison Ellwood (The History of the Eagles) about this most legendary of late-’60s musical incubators: a small, (then-)affordable neighborhood in the Hollywood Hills, where the likes of the Byrds, the Doors, Frank Zappa, the Mamas and the Papas, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the Monkees, Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, the Eagles, and many others lived, worked, and perhaps most importantly, socialized and shared with each other, sparking each other’s creativity and sense of friendly competition. The result is the soundtrack of multiple generations, songs that lived far past and indeed changed the very idea of what the shelf life of pop music could be.
Though I have to assume that Ellwood got the idea to work on this piece while she was working on The History of the Eagles -- Glenn Frey and Don Henley figure prominently into part 2 of Laurel Canyon, and a good chunk of footage featured in The History of the Eagles is repurposed here -- she makes a key stylistic change here that I wish more rock-docs would emulate: though nearly all of the surviving players in this story participated by giving their remembrances, Ellwood wisely only presents those remarks in voiceover, never harshing on our buzz by reminding us what present-day David Crosby or present-day Joni Mitchell or present-day Michelle Phillips looks like. (The pleasant exception to this is photographers Henry Diltz and Nurit Wilde, both of whom have parlayed their proximity to all these future boldface names into careers as elite rock shutterbugs, and who share their own remembrances of taking certain photos. )
Instead she keeps the focus on these icons in their beautiful youth, which is as it should be: I don’t want to be distracted by thoughts of Crosby’s 1985 arrest on PCP and handgun charges when I’m basking in the idyllic retelling of how, after leaving the Byrds, Crosby gradually joined forces first with Stephen Stills, after filling in for a gig with Stills’ band Buffalo Springfield, and then at Cass Elliott’s suggestion, with Graham Nash of the Hollies. After the trio recorded their first album and began to plan a tour, Neil Young was added to the roster. “What do we need another guitar player for?” Crosby asks Stills. “Have you ever heard Neil and me play guitar together?” Stills replies. Crosby says no; Stills says, “that’s why,” and CSNY was born.
A few other key anecdotes that I particularly enjoyed: the story of how the band Love conspired to get out of its contract with Elektra by giving them the Doors, and accidentally killed their own career instead; how Graham Nash, in the first flowering of his two-year romance with Joni Mitchell, wrote “Our House,” based on a true, banal story; how Alice Cooper showed up at Frank Zappa’s house at 8am for an audition; how Stephen Stills’ failed audition for the Monkees (his dental situation was not very camera-friendly) led to his friend Peter Tork getting the gig; how the Mamas and the Papas nearly broke up over intraband sexual intrigue before playing a key role in organizing the Monterey Pop Festival; how Joni Mitchell missed Woodstock but wrote the definitive song about it; how Gram Parsons turned the Byrds into a country band for six months and then stole their bassist to form The Flying Burrito Brothers; how Linda Ronstadt’s backing band became The Eagles; the inside stories behind Woodstock and Altamont; and on and on and on and on.
One thing that I found interesting watching this, as a lifelong rock scholar and musician myself well acquainted with the broad legend of Laurel Canyon, if not the fine details presented here, was that I had always imagined it to be a very small area, like a cul de sac or something. Ellwood takes a moment at the top of part 1 to actually show Laurel Canyon on the map, and then to show it from an aerial view, revealing the neighborhood to be both much larger than I imagined, and at the same time even smaller, with cramped little houses on cramped little mountainside roads, but many more of those roads than I’d imagined. It’s sort of like the story Ellwood is telling, and Crosby, Mitchell, and the rest are telling about each other: a compressed little story about a tight-knit group of friends, but whose tentacles have a much farther reach than anyone wrapped in them at the time could have imagined. For music lovers of a certain vintage, this documentary is rich with atmosphere; you can practically smell the eucalyptus.
The day after we watched Part 1 of Laurel Canyon together, my wife caught me about 20 minutes into watching Part 2 on my own. “You’re watching without me?” she demanded accusingly. Normally when she sits through a rock-doc with me -- and she has been at my side through dozens, if not hundreds of them by now -- she’s more often patiently humoring me than engrossed and enraptured, so I was surprised to hear this, and said so.
“I like it,” she said. “It makes me nostalgic for a time I never knew.”
Laurel Canyon premieres on EPIX on May 31, and will be available on demand.