There are certain places, like Paris in the 1930s or Italy during the Renaissance, where just the right combination of freedom, people and culture come together to allow creativity to blossom like wildflowers in the spring. The film Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time explores why this obscure Los Angeles neighborhood evolved into a musical Garden of Eden during the decade beginning about 1965.
The SXSW Conferences were canceled this year because of the Corona Virus. The film, which had been accepted as part of the SXSW series of music-oriented films, 24 Beats Per Second, immerses you in the joy, craziness and tragedy of that special segment of American music history.
The special circumstances of that neighborhood allowed documentation of this bright spot of musical creativity in truly special ways. For me, being a child of the sixties, this film not only entertained, but revealed insights into my own life and musical experience.
Photos in the Canyon
The film was created by writer/producer/director Alison Ellwood who has done previous films about musical performers and eccentric personalities. In the beginning of the film she introduces viewers to still photographer Henry Diltz. We see Diltz sitting in front of hundreds of boxes of slides, a spot from which he shares his reminiscences. Diltz began as a musician with the Modern Folk Quartet, but began taking photos, many of which ended up on the covers of albums by the biggest names of the era. After a photo taken of them by Diltz, three young musicians decided to call their newly formed group Crosby, Stills & Nash.
Other still photos came from groupie turned photographer Nurit Wilde. In the film Wilde recalls how she upgraded herself when she started working on lighting at the Whiskey a Go Go. Like Diltz, her photographs include iconic singers such as Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Jim Morrison, Michael Nesmith, and Linda Ronstadt.
The film is presented in two one-hour segments. The first part is the happy birth of this amazing period. The second part details the social and economic changes that overturned this musical Shangri-La.
So Happy Together
The film begins with vintage footage of a car traveling through Los Angeles with “Happy Together” by The Turtles providing the soundtrack.
As various bands began to discover the canyon, we see film and pictures of people you wouldn’t have expected to be hanging out together. The Monkees were an ersatz group put together for a TV show to emulate the Beatles movies like Yellow Submarine or A Hard Day’s Night. Yet they were there in the mix with Frank Zappa, The Doors, and the Mamas and the Papas.
Amongst the celebrity talk and photos are some serious discussions about the music. The Laurel Canyon musicians were reacting to the “British invasion” – the domination of American music by English groups inspired by the Beatles. The reaction was often to seek a synthesis of the new sounds with traditional American motifs such as Rhythm and Blues, and Country.
I personally thought during this period that I was rebelling against my parents’ Country music passion. The film helped me understand that groups like America and performers like Jackson Browne were really building on this tradition.
The film also chronicles venues like the Whiskey a Go Go and The Troubadour. These were small, intimate clubs. I was lucky enough to live about a mile from the Troubadour during part of this period, and I’m sure it’s my voice yelling on the recording of one of Linda Rondstadt’s songs recorded live at the Troubadour.
And then there was Woodstock. The film holds this up as the high point of the peace and love generation’s cultural coming of age and explores its influence on the musicians and music.
Riders on the Storm
The second part of the documentary explores how the environment changed from the bright joyful world of Joni Mitchell’s “Ladies of the Canyon” to the dark threatening world of the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm.”
The environment went from intimate clubs to stadium rock. Musicians stopped sharing ideas and became protective of their work. Hippies were no longer seen as flower children, but like the people who hung out with mass murderer Charles Manson.
Woodstock was the symbol of the early period, but another concert – Altamont – became the new symbol. People were stabbed, run over and drowned. Security was provided by the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club.
The second part of the documentary is not all gloom and has beautiful musical performances. It spends considerable time on the early career of Linda Ronstadt and the singers she helped and influenced.
One of the singers who survived the chaos, lamented that they were still hippies, but they were rich hippies, and they moved to Beverly Hills.
After all this time and so many changes, there is still a song in the canyon. Los Angeles Magazine reports that residents of Laurel Canyon, isolating because of the Coronavirus, have been sitting in their windows serenading one another and having sing-a-longs. It is still a place blessed by music.
Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time will be play on Epix, May 31st and June 7th at 9 p.m. ET.