Who wins the title for Biggest Jerk in Rock ’n’ Roll? (It doesn’t say “Jerk” on the certificate, but this is a family newspaper.) Artists as varied as Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Morrissey have been bandied about as contenders, and, personally, I’ve always thought that Lou Reed should have retired the crown. Based on a viewing of “David Crosby: Remember My Name,” though, the LA musician and classic-rock legend deserves to be up there in the competitive brackets. This is a man so intensely disliked by his peers that when it came time to make a documentary about his life no one agreed to be interviewed.
Correction: Roger McGuinn is here, so I guess the 52 years since he and Chris Hillman fired Crosby from the Byrds is the precise amount of time it takes to heal all wounds. And Crosby’s wife, Jan, is also a benevolent, adoring on-camera presence, who practically goes into mourning when the singer, in his mid-70s, heads out on one more tour to pay the bills.
A.J. Eaton’s prickly documentary captures this lion in winter, honest about his failings to a latter-day fault and keeping his mercurial side under wraps for the most part. Interviewed at home and around LA by rock critic-turned-director Cameron Crowe (“Almost Famous,” “Say Anything”), the film’s producer and a longtime acquaintance, Crosby is good, irascible company, and on the surface the film’s an engaging jaunt through a colorful if haplessly messy rock ’n’ roll life. (If you’re curious what the lion sounds like when he’s poked, a recent Hollywood Reporter interview ended with Crosby losing his cool after being asked a personal question about Joni Mitchell.)
He was a son of Hollywood — father Floyd Crosby was an Oscar-winning cinematographer — who with the Byrds birthed folk rock. The guitar jangle of their 1965 breakthrough hit, Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” was all McGuinn’s, but the vocal harmonies were steered by Crosby, who brought them to his 1969 collaboration with Graham Nash and Stephen Stills and their 1970 collaboration with Neil Young. The groups’ albums are the indelible wallpaper of their era and the songs Crosby contributed — notably “Almost Cut My Hair” and “Guinnevere” — were both the most urgent and the most quickly dated.
Crosby claims he was the first of the scene to move to Laurel Canyon and maybe he’s even right. “Remember My Name” drives around the old haunts, the singer pointing out where Graham wrote “Our House” and reminiscing about his own relationship with Mitchell before she moved in with Nash. Archival footage of a jam session with Mitchell trying out her song “Coyote” years before it turned up on “Hejira” (1976) may be the movie’s musical high point. Which is a problem in a documentary about David Crosby.
By the 1980s and ’90s, he was a counterculture laughing stock, arrested, jailed, in and out of treatment, and, in 1994, the owner of a new liver, his own having been wrecked by decades of insult. Crosby has Type 2 diabetes and eight stents in his heart, and the famous Custer mustache and mane of hair are a billowy white. (He never did cut it in the end.) He crisscrosses the country with kid musicians, has recorded four new albums in the last five years — we don’t hear nearly enough of the music — and the most surprising fact of all is that Crosby’s singing voice has survived as high and strong and supple as ever. He has a gorgeous voice. That, at least, has never been in dispute.
Still, this also has to be a movie about Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, Neil Young, and others, and none of them show up to the party other than in archival interviews several years old or more. Crosby tells of Nash screaming at him in fury at a 2015 concert — the last Crosby, Stills & Nash appearance to date — and it’d sure be interesting to hear Nash’s side of the story. He also says he’d call Young to apologize if he only had Neil’s phone number, which is the biggest horselaugh in the movie. And while Crosby is painfully frank throughout this documentary about his knack for destroying friendships and driving people away (we learn in one brief aside that there’s a daughter who hasn’t spoken to him in years), one senses that it’s easier for him to say these things now than to have done the hard, human work of repair. “David Crosby: Remember My Name” is a testament of achievement and a portrait of ego, but it never quite gets past its subject’s illusions to properly consider his art.
★ ★ ★
DAVID CROSBY: REMEMBER MY NAME
Directed by A.J. Eaton. At Kendall Square, West Newton. 95 minutes. R (language, drug material, brief nudity)