'David Crosby: Remember My Name': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
Teaches the children well.

The musician looks back over his life, loves and career in this documentary, produced by Cameron Crowe and directed by newcomer A.J. Eaton.

Looking back not in anger, but with wry amusement, regret and a big, fat joint at the ready, rock star David Crosby reflects on his life, career and many high times in documentary David Crosby: Remember My Name. Editor and short-film maker A.J. Eaton makes his feature directing debut here and is heard throughout as an off-camera interlocutor, nudging Crosby along to remember the past, taking turns as an interviewer with onetime rock journalist turned film director Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous), who also produces the film.

The result is a touching, nostalgia-infused portrait that’s imbued with affection for its horny, ornery but consistently charismatic subject. And yet, remarkably, it never comes across as fawning or hagiographic. Instead, Crosby and his interviewers collaborate to create something that feels honest and insightful about a talented dude who hit the 1960s-'70s Los Angeles music scene just when the city, and his Laurel Canyon neighborhood in particular, became the hippest place on Earth for a while.

An interest in Crosby’s music and position in history as either a solo artist or a member of The Byrds, Crosby, Stills & Nash (and later Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) would enhance the viewing experience but is by no means a requirement for entry. The doc’s free-wheeling narrative style and rich seam of archive footage make this a plausible choice for limited theatrical distribution before it gets fed inevitably into the unquenchable gullet of some online steaming behemoth.

Born in the early 1940s to a loving mother and a distant father, DP Floyd Crosby — who won one of the first cinematography Academy Awards for Tabu (1931) and also shot High Noon (1952) — David Crosby was drawn to jazz and pop music from an early age, and recounts how he found himself naturally singing harmony with records by the Everly Brothers. Eaton and Crowe crisply guide Crosby through an account of his days as a budding rock star in the L.A. scene, making hits with The Byrds, which led to hanging out with The Beatles and the like. The author of a well-regarded autobiography, Crosby often displays here a knack for vivid phrase making, for example when describing himself in this period as “young, cocky, bright, very creative … and a caboose to my dick.”

On that note, a considerable chunk of screen time is spent on the subject of Crosby’s many love affairs with many, many different women, most of whom he confesses to having hurt emotionally and/or physically as well by drawing them into drug abuse. The loss of one love, Christine Hinton, who died in a car accident at age 21, clearly cuts him deeply still, possibly because the trauma was compounded by his having to identify her body, an experience he confesses he never really recovered from. On the other hand, he has mostly fond recollections of his tempestuous relationship with singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, of whom he speaks with great admiration, even if he likens falling in love with her to “falling into a cement mixer.” The moment she dumped him by playing him a song she’d just written about him clearly stings still, even though a certain twinkle in his eye suggests he’s a bit flattered to be thus memorialized.  

Crosby’s platonic love affairs with his bandmates, particularly Stephen Stills, Graham Nash (who Mitchell took up with for a time) and Neil Young, figures here with equal importance. These partnerships arguably lasted longer than any of Crosby’s romantic relationships, and have been no less tumultuous. Crosby looks genuinely contrite to report that none of them are speaking to him any more because of hurtful things he said, and it would seem he’s willing to cop to the lion’s share of the blame. But reflecting the restless inquisitiveness that’s been a hallmark of his career, he continues to explore new avenues in music with young new collaborators, recently winning some of the best reviews of his career.

Given that’s the case, it’s a shame the film doesn’t allocate a little more time to discuss the musical nitty gritty of Crosby’s work, such as the “weird tunings” he alludes to that he developed as early as his days with The Byrds and which make his sound so distinctive. It’s a gap that’s felt in all too many documentaries about musicians these days, as if filmmakers are scared of frightening off viewers with too much technical talk about scales and time signatures.

But there’s arguably a significant chunk of the audience who want to hear more about this very subject and less about the predictable and sadly all too same-y stories of abjection caused by drugs and drink. On this topic, Crosby is again fairly eloquent: “Addiction takes you over like fire takes over a burning building,” he observes at one point. But really it’s the same old sad story in a way, just like the one we heard in docs about Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston or Nina Simone recently. The only difference here is that Crosby actually ended up in jail due to his addictions, survived and is here now to tell the tale. 

With: David Crosby, Jan Crosby, A.J. Eaton, Cameron Crowe, Roger McGuinn
Production companies: A BMG presentation in association with PCH Films of a Vinyl Films production
Director: A.J. Eaton
Producers: Cameron Crowe, Michele Farinola, Greg Mariotti
Executive producers: Justus Haerder, Kathy Rivkin Daum, James Keach, Jill Mazursky, Norm Waitt
Directors of photography:  Edd Lukas, Ian Coad
Editor: Elisa Bonora, Veronica Pinkham
Music: Marcus Eaton, Bill Laurance
Music supervisors: Joey Singer, Heather Guibert
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Sales: CAA

93 minutes