Television Review: “Laurel Canyon” — Journey Back to a Tiny Fortunate Universe
By Glenn Rifkin
From the mid-’60s to around 1972, Laurel Canyon became the epicenter of a magical musical interlude that gave birth to some of the most iconic and timeless music of a generation.
Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time, directed by Alison Ellwood. EPIX network. Can be watched on demand on Amazon Prime Video, VUDU, Apple TV, and Xfinity.
In 1968, as a 15-year old kid sitting in my bedroom in my white bread northern New Jersey town, I was mesmerized by the stunning voice and breathtaking songsmithing of a young blonde goddess who had just arrived on the emerging singer/songwriter circuit. I played Joni Mitchell’s debut album, Song to a Seagull, over and over on my tiny portable record player and fell deeply and passionately in love. The aching and longing of her lyrics touched deep into a young boy’s soul.
Joni was just one of a wave of new artists being ushered onto the scene via WNEW-FM, the first album rock station in the metropolitan area. As I navigated the tortuous route through high school, I listened constantly to the WNEW DJs who introduced us to James Taylor, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds, the Doors, the Eagles, and Jackson Browne, among countless others. I knew very little about the artists, but their music became the soundtrack for my young life.
What I didn’t know at the time, nor would know for decades, was that many, if not most, of the artists I worshiped were pretty much all living in the same little Hollywood Hills neighborhood in Los Angeles, a place called Laurel Canyon. It turns out that from the mid-’60s to around 1972, Laurel Canyon became the epicenter of a magical musical interlude that gave birth to some of the most iconic and timeless music of a generation. The young superstars of that era arrived in LA hoping to hit it big, but more importantly, they were seeking a place to create the music that was pounding in their veins to find form.
Now, a two-part documentary from director Alison Ellwood, Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time, tells the story of that remarkable period through the words of the stars who populated that tiny fortunate universe. Told through interviews with some of the biggest names such as Graham Nash, David Crosby, Jackson Browne, Don Henley, Linda Ronstadt, Roger McGuinn, and Bonnie Raitt, along with clips of interviews with Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and many other key players, the docuseries offers an insightful dive into the confluence of time and place and individuals that spawned so much of the folk/rock discography of the era. From Frank Zappa, the deity of the wannabes, to the Monkees, a made-for-TV band that somehow feels as if it belongs in this collection, the faces will delight boomers as well as their kids who were surprisingly mesmerized by their parents’ album collections.
If it feels like we’ve been down this road a lot lately, it’s because we have. Last year’s Echo in the Canyon, a documentary about the same neighborhood and era produced by Jakob Dylan, covered much of the familiar territory, albeit in a very different style. Ellwood’s own much-lauded History of the Eagles documentary from 2013, along with last year’s brilliant Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, might leave one wondering if it’s necessary to revisit yet again.
But Laurel Canyon is well worth the trip. Beyond the wonderful soundtrack that winds through the film, Ellwood offers a seamless narrative built upon the lure of the canyon and the ties that inextricably bound these young artists together. Nobody could have planned what would happen on those winding, overgrown pathways up into the hills. Someone moved in first, discovered a remarkably inexpensive neighborhood just minutes from the Sunset Strip and clubs like The Troubadour, and the word quickly spread. When the Mamas and the Papas made “California Dreamin'” a reality, they ended up living in tiny houses just blocks from each other. Stills had a house not far from Crosby, and Nash fell in love with Mitchell and moved into her cottage where he inevitably penned “Our House” while she worked on “Blue” and “Ladies of the Canyon” in the living room.
There was a communal feel, it being the ’60s and all, that meant doors were left unlocked, relationships, sexual and otherwise, along with jam sessions, broke out spontaneously, and musical breakthroughs were as thick as the LA smog. See a young Eric Clapton transfixed by Joni Mitchell’s guitar work using an open tuning at a backyard BBQ. Watch David Crosby and Stephen Stills meeting a recently arrived Graham Nash, who jumped into an impromptu duet that produced a spine-tingling three-part harmony. Ellwood pieces it together in a moving and lyrical fashion, illustrating the weaving of the web of the relationships, most of which formed, spawned some remarkable bit of music, and then split apart in quicksilver motion, as inexplicably as it came together.
Ellwood smartly enlisted the participation of uber-producers David Geffen and Elliot Roberts, who put context and business acumen into the romantic mix. It was indeed magic, but there were some very smart people setting out the blueprints for the megahits that emerged on what seemed a daily basis. She also adds the voices and images of rock photographers Henry Diltz and Nurit Wilde, both of whom were living in the same neighborhood and taking the iconic photos that documented the fairy tale.
For a generation that is now gray and a bit bent over, present-company included, the music that emerged from Laurel Canyon during this incredibly fertile period is so deeply ingrained in our memories that we, who can no longer always remember why we entered a room, can call up every lyric to every song. Learning where it all came from is a wonderful journey back in time.
Glenn Rifkin is a veteran journalist and author who has covered business for many publications including the New York Times for nearly 30 years. He has written about music, film, theater, food and books for the Arts Fuse. His new book Future Forward: Leadership Lessons from Patrick McGovern, the Visionary Who Circled the Globe and Built a Technology Media Empire was recently published by McGraw-Hill.