I caught up with “Laurel Canyon,” a new two-part docuseries that premiered on Epix two weeks ago (and not to be confused with the inferior “Echo in the Canyon”). It’s about all the musicians and bands living, performing, and crossing paths in the Los Angeles enclave in the late-1960s and early 1970s, including David Crosby, Joni Mitchell, Graham Nash, Buffalo Springfield, Love, Bonnie Raitt, the Mamas and the Papas, Jackson Browne, the Byrds, the Doors, Alice Cooper, JD Souther, Linda Ronstadt, Little Feat, Frank Zappa, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and the Monkees.
It’s not that “Laurel Canyon” breaks new ground, especially if you’ve been following the musicians who emerged from that time and place for years. But it’s packed with enough excellent footage and photos of all the artists it covers to feel immersive. Wisely, director Alison Ellwood keeps all of her interview subjects (excluding two photographers, Henry Diltz and Nurit Wilde) off the screen; we only hear them speak, while Ellwood IDs them so we know whether we’re hearing Browne, Crosby, Stephen Stills, Robbie Krieger, Michelle Phillips, or any of the many others. The approach lets us sink into the images and feeling of Laurel Canyon without the distraction of how these people look now. She also includes the old recorded voices of Cass Elliot, Arthur Lee, Jim Morrison, and others who’ve died.
Certainly the movie fixates on the myth of Laurel Canyon as it has survived across the decades, from Elliot’s famous backyard gatherings and the soap opera that was the Mamas and the Papas to Nash’s telling of the story of the day he wrote “Our House” for Mitchell. But why not; that’s the reason to see it, to get a close-up of all the California dreamin’ before age, corporate stresses, big bank accounts, cocaine, and competition reared their heads. Ellwood does chronicle the way darker realities eventually made their way into the bubble of the Canyon, including the tragic Altamont concert, the Kent State killings, and the Manson murders.
But “Laurel Canyon” is celebratory and intimate, and the constant barrage of photos and footage does its trick. There are great visuals of the young Neil Young on “American Bandstand,” concerts at the Troubador including Jim Morrison dazing his way through a bad performance, Peter Tork auditioning for the Monkees, and, remarkably, a fierce argument between Crosby, Stills, and Nash. That last clip is part of the end of the movie, and of the scene. As Crosby says, “It became edgy, colder, less truthful.”