'Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time': TV Review

Laurel Canyon - Publicity still - H 2020
Henry Diltz
A moveable feast of California dreamin'.

Alison Ellwood's two-part doc celebrates the rustic neighborhood that nurtured a historic confluence of singer-songwriters and rock innovators in late-1960s/early-'70s Los Angeles.

With Laurel Canyon, Alison Ellwood goes to the source: Her stirring composite portrait of a vibrant, groundbreaking music scene is built almost entirely from archival stills and footage, much of the material rare and some of it never before viewed publicly. The voices we hear belong to people who were there, and they have stories to tell — some that will be familiar to aficionados, and some that illuminate whole new corners of a well-traveled pop-culture history.

If Laurel Canyon of the late '60s and '70s was a "place in time," as the Epix two-parter's subtitle puts it, the current moment would appear to be the time and place for documentaries that look back at the era's defining music.

Over the past year or so, a number of docs have profiled the musicians whose work shaped a generation, from poetic heavyweights Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan to such genre-busting pioneers as The Band. Two recent entries focused on key figures in the Laurel Canyon scene, Linda Ronstadt and David Crosby, and one, Echo in the Canyon, delved into the Canyon crowd's musical influences through terrific new interviews that were, unfortunately, framed by awkward Jakob Dylan & Friends sequences that never lost the whiff of self-promotion.

Like that film, Ellwood's is interested in the creative lineage and cross-pollination of the Canyon's much-mythologized artists. But Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time is immersive rather than analytical. The director has a sure feel for the essence of the period and its players, and for the social and emotional impact of their songs. Thanks to a superbly curated wealth of material and the ace editing of Anoosh Tertzakian, a world comes alive within the doc's relatively brief running time (the two episodes each clock in under 90 minutes).

Fittingly, a conversational flow propels Laurel Canyon's thoughtful and spirited nostalgia trip. Sometimes, though (in the second installment especially), the leaps from one rich topic to the next can feel rushed or disjointed, as when a discussion of political awakening segues to an exploration of the Mamas and the Papas' psychosexual soap opera. In a show that's mostly in perfect tune with its subject, another episode or two would have offered the time and space to unwind some of the abruptly dropped narrative threads.

It's a touch of brilliance that the only new interviewees who appear on camera are photographers Henry Diltz and Nurit Wilde. Many of the film's intimate images of musicians at work and play, whether rehearsing in Stephen Stills' backyard or barbecuing at Cass Elliot's, were captured by Wilde and Diltz, indispensable chroniclers of the scene and part of it too. Wilde was working at talent-showcase hotspots the Troubadour and the Whisky when she began taking pictures of the performers. And it might be news to many viewers that Diltz, legendary for his snapshots, came to Los Angeles as a member of the Modern Folk Quartet — seen in archival footage that looks like outtakes from the Spinal Tap backstory.

Rather than interrupting the visual rhythm with talking-head segments, the musicians' comments play in voiceover while their beautiful young selves fill the screen. A wise creative choice that heightens the you-are-there immediacy, it also allows Ellwood to use both new and existing interviews. In some cases it's obvious that the audio was recorded years earlier: The speaker is long deceased, or there's a telltale youthful pitch to the voice (hello, Neil Young). But it isn't clear for everyone, and it would have been helpful to indicate dates along with names in the identifying onscreen text — not simply for historical reference but to signal the personal vantage point: When did Joni Mitchell, for example, recall that soul-shaking acid trip? How many years after the breakup telegram (!) she sent Graham Nash did he describe it, striking a balance between wistful and philosophical?

The sense of place comes through potently: the geography and semirural beauty of the neighborhood, with its dirt roads, hilltop views and easy access to the clubs on the Sunset Strip. Rentals were cheap, real estate affordable. "It wasn't a scene yet," says Crosby, who with his Byrds bandmates was among the first musicians to move there in the '60s. "It was just a better place to live." Soon enough the Canyon was a scene, home to dozens of young, productive and increasingly influential artists who hung out together and inspired one another, visiting house to unlocked house — "Not even knocking," Micky Dolenz says.

The first episode wraps on the peace-and-love high of Woodstock, but not without alluding to the end-of-innocence undertow of the Manson murders — antithetical events that took place within days of each other in August 1969. The idea that the killings by Charles Manson's followers marked the crushing conclusion of an openhearted era has been expressed countless times, but the doc lends personal dimension to the premise with firsthand memories of an overnight seismic shift: Diltz recalls his newfound reluctance to pick up hitchhikers; Crosby describes buying his first gun.

Though it gathers the usual suspects — among them Buffalo Springfield, The Doors, CSNY — Laurel Canyon does so in often striking fashion, offering fresh angles on rock lore. But it also paints a wider view, one that takes into account the guiding influence of Little Richard on the band Love (whose Johnny Echols reveals a chilling brush with Manson disciples). Ellwood reminds us of Steve Martin's connection to the scene as well as that of the Monkees. She traces lesser-known connections between Frank Zappa, a sort of elder statesman of the Canyon, and such disparate acts as Alice Cooper and Little Feat, and suggests, not incidentally, that for fans of the SoCal sound, a game of Six Degrees of Bernie Leadon could prove rewarding.

Episode two finds a second wave of singer-songwriters, led by a very young Jackson Browne, moving into the Canyon and established artists moving out: Regarding her and John Phillips' Bel-Air lifestyle, Michelle Phillips says: "We were hippies. But we were rich hippies." Among the early-'70s Canyon set, the Eagles get their due, along with Ronstadt and Bonnie Raitt, and Ellwood rightly spotlights the crucial, country-rock vanguard role of Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers.

The model for California-style rock success having been established, this newer crop of performers was naturally more self-conscious about commercial prospects. Ellwood draws eloquent commentary on the bridging of art and commerce from Elliot Roberts, longtime manager of Young, onetime partner of David Geffen and a vital figure in any history of the period. In what was likely his final extensive interview before his death in June 2019 (the show is dedicated to his memory), Roberts recalls the musical community's energy and camaraderie as well as the need to make a living. His take on Altamont, the disastrous Rolling Stones-headlined mega-concert, is particularly sharp and insightful.

It may often feel enveloped in suffocating myth, and it might be dismissed by boomer bashers, but there's no question that something unprecedented and transformative was taking place in the musical precincts of Los Angeles in the '60s and '70s. A reaction against the conformist '50s no less than anything that was going on in the culture at the time, it was an alchemy of youth, vision, talent and ambition, and the invention of new styles of music. For those who grew up on that music and for those who made it, the planets were realigning, and Laurel Canyon is a bracing reminder of how that looked and felt and why it mattered.

Director: Alison Ellwood
Producers: Erin Edeiken, Ryan Suffern
Executive producers: Michael Wright, Jill Burkhart, Craig Kallman, Mark Pinkus, Darryl Frank, Justin Falvey, Stacey Offman, Richard Perello, Jeff Pollack, Alex Gibney, Frank Marshall
Director of photography: Sam Painter
Editor: Anoosh Tertzakian
Composer: Paul Pilot

Premieres Sunday, May 31, 9 p.m. (Epix)