Laurel Canyon — A Place In Time

At the Movies Blog
A documentary on '60s bands in L.A.

Guitarist Johnny Echols, Arthur Lee, and LOVE

People usually talk about the British Invasion on shows about ‘60s rock ‘n roll. Over the last few years, America is getting its due, with the stories that are coming out about the music scene that started in L.A., more specifically, the Laurel Canyon area. We learned a lot about that in a few documentaries last year — David Crosby: Remember My Name, Echo in the Canyon, Linda Ronstadt: The Sound Of My Voice. Over 10 years ago, I wrote a two page story for the San Diego Reader on photographer Henry Diltz, and he gave me his DVD documentary Under the Covers, which covers a lot of this ground. Diltz is heavily featured in the terrific new documentary Laurel Canyon — A Place in Time. Yet it’s not just the photographer of over 200 album covers who talks, but you hear from many of the famous musicians of that era (and area); both living and dead. Those we lost that we hear from include Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek of The Doors, Bryan MacLean and Arthur Lee of Love, Cass Elliot, and Lowell George of Little Feat).

In my early 20s, I had a cousin take me down all these streets in Laurel Canyon, showing me where all these folks lived, including the popular Country Store that was written about a few times (including The Doors song “Love Street” as it’s near where Morrison lived). Even if you’ve never been to the area, it’s nice to visit vicariously through this documentary. And how cool is it to think about Crosby, Stills, Nash, Zappa, Joni, a few Monkees, Byrds, and Turtles (the bands, not animals), just showing up at each other’s homes to jam. Of course, Zappa was a bit surprised when Alice Cooper showed up and started jamming at 7 A.M. (he told him to show up at 7, figuring Cooper would realize he meant P.M. not A.M.). 

Alison Ellwood directed some terrific documentaries, including one on The Eagles, Ken Kesey, and a variety of sports topics. She does an incredible job with her subjects here. 

While Diltz always has great stories, I felt photographer Nurit Wilde was lacking, and she got a lot of coverage. It is neat that she parlayed her love of the music (and being thought of as a groupie), to actually getting a job doing the lights at the famous Whiskey a-Go-Go. It’s just a shame she didn’t have a bit more of interest to contribute.

The documentary airs in two parts. The first starts with The Turtles song “Happy Together” and ends with The Byrds “So You Wanna Be A Rock ‘n Roll Star” — both perfect tunes to bookend this piece. You’ll hear a lot more stories on the Byrds, and even if you’re not the biggest fan, you’ll still enjoy the tales they tell.

Since The Doors are my favorite band, I was very pleased that they got so much attention here. They were left out completely in Echo in the Canyon (which also left out Arthur Lee & Love). This documentary gives them their due, and we get to hear some stories from guitarist Johnny Echols (who sounded great in concert a few months ago at the Casbah). Although I think he usually gets his facts wrong when he talks about Love. In this he claims they couldn’t tour because they were a bi-racial group and there were places in the South they couldn’t go. Uh, no. Everyone knows it was because their singer Arthur Lee refused to tour anywhere. He was content staying in L.A. making a good living and getting high. Speaking of which, the only thing this documentary doesn’t cover well is drug use. Perhaps they didn’t want a bummer on this happy trip. Yet when so many of these musicians died young because of the drug use, that seems a bit irresponsible and not quite telling the whole story.

Regarding The Doors, perhaps Echo in the Canyon filmmakers felt they had been covered extensively enough (heck, they had their own movie done by Oliver Stone). They also didn’t have the same “make love, not war” vibe these other musicians had. Yet they lived in the area, partied with these guys, and arguably became the biggest band of the bunch.

It was fun seeing concert footage of The Doors I had never seen, and even a quick shot of Morrison in the crowd at a Mamas and Papas concert.

The documentary covers festivals like Woodstock, and the less known (but better one) — Monterey Pop. The bummer in the summer (of love) was the Charles Manson segment. We also see some powerful footage from Altamont, where the Hell’s Angels were hired to do security for a festival. I never knew that CSN, Santana, Jefferson Airplane, and the Flying Burrito Brothers also played on that bill. I just thought it was a Rolling Stones show.

Rondstadt tells a lot of the stories we just saw in her documentary, but for those that missed that, they’re worth hearing here.

It was interesting how we started with all these ‘60s musicians, and they seamlessly segue into ‘70s artists like Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Little Feat, and The Eagles [insert Big Lebowski quote here, if you’re not a fan].

Having lost the legendary Little Richard recently, it was great timing that we hear Love guitarist (Johnny Echols) talk about Richard telling the band to keep their publishing rights, which is why they signed with the only label that would let them do that — Elektra.

We all know about some of the famous musicians that didn’t get cast to be in The Monkees TV show, but hearing about Stephen Stills (one of the best songwriters of the era), being turned down and recommending his roommate — Peter Tork — is hysterical.

Sometimes knowing too much about these musicians is a hindrance. For example, when Graham Nash talks so glowingly about being in love with Joni Mitchell — I just kept wondering when they’d talk about how she had dated David Crosby first, who also produced her first record. How does that love triangle not get covered? Or the fact that Nash was married when the two hooked up? Instead, we just hear about it as if it’s this lovely, domestic bliss, that led him to write the beautiful song “Our House.”

It was a pleasant surprise to hear from Steve Martin, who was around that area. His story about dating Rondstadt for two weeks was classic.

As a kid who often listened to the classic rock station KLOS 95.5 FM out of Los Angeles, it was great to hear from one of their former DJs — Jim Ladd.

This is a must-see for any fan of rock ‘n roll. Catch it on Epix.

3 ½ stars out of 5.

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