The rock musicians who wrote songs, smoked dope and had sex with other in Los Angeles' Laurel Canyon lived in a bubble during the late 1960s and early '70s, photographer Nurit Wilde says in the Epix's "Laurel Canyon"
The two-part, three and a-half hour documentary looks back on the rock idols' gilded hippie lifestyle, which flourished from 1966 through 1972.
Directed by Alison Ellwood, the film uses home movies, interviews, vintage concert film and photos to evoke the era in which guitars rang from the hills in a continuous party.
Along with Wilde, photographer and musician Henry Diltz is the primary storyteller, the keeper of the flame. Their photos of the young stars 50 years ago drip with baby-boomer nostalgia.
As Vietnam War protests raged and the civil rights movement progressed, the musicians turned their attention to the outside world, with songs like Stephen Stills' "For What It's Worth." But the documentary depicts a group of self-entitled, hedonistic young people adored by fans and despised by "the Silent Majority."
Revered Mothers of Invention leader Frank Zappa began the rock musicians' migration to Laurel Canyon.
The easy-going rustic scene close to Los Angeles' entertainment district attracted David Crosby, Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, Chris Hillman, Stills, Neil Young, Richie Furay, John Phillips, Cass Elliot, John Phillips, Michelle Phillips, Joni Mitchell, Graham Nash, Jim Morrison, Peter York, Micky Dolenz, and Arthur Lee. A second wave brought Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Glenn Frey, J.D. Souther, Lowell George, Bonnie Raitt and Don Henley.
The documentary traces the changing fortunes of the Byrds, the Buffalo Springfield, the Doors, Love, the Mamas and Papas, Little Feat, the Monkees and the Eagles. Moving freely among each other's houses, the doors never locked, the young stars wrote songs and performed together.
Clubs like the Troubadour launched the performers' careers. As the musicians' success grew, they pursued more opulent lifestyles. Professional and personal jealousies rose.
Prominent stories include the formation of Crosby, Stills and Nash, later joined by Young, and the creatively fertile relationship of Nash and Mitchell. The good vibes are belied by conflicts roiling the Mamas and the Papas, especially the volatile marriage of Michelle and John Phillips.
After John Phillips discovers Michelle's affair with the Byrds' Gene Clark, he kicks her out of the band.
To rejoin the group, Michelle has to humiliate herself before Phillips, bringing a tortured reconciliation. As she reflects, male rock stars didn't believe free love encompassed women.
While Stills, Young and Furay's Buffalo Springfield fall apart, the Byrds survive the exit of Crosby by turning toward country, led by Gram Parsons. While the addition of Clarence White is not mentioned, the virtuouso guitarist also fueled the success of the Byrds' "Sweetheart of the Rodeo."
The documentary details Parsons' later success with Hillman in the Flying Burrito Brothers, but ignores his solo albums with Emmylou Harris.
Nor is Parsons' death by a drug overdose mentioned, although Morrison and Elliot's deaths are fully examined.
Elliot is remembered as the prime den mother of the Laurel Canyon bacchanal. Morrison's rise and fall as the leader of the Doors is the documentary's most tragic story.
In the second segment, the young Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt take center stage, along with the rise of the Eagles. The band's founders, Glenn Frey and Don Henley, got their start playing in Ronstadt's band, and she encouraged them to form the group. Browne and Frey co-wrote one of the band's early hits, "Take It Easy."
The popularity of the Eagles, who along with Crosby, Stills and Nash and Ronstadt began playing in stadiums, marks the end of Laurel Canyon's cozy scene.
A facile marketing scheme for the band’s “Desperadoes” album in which they pose as Old West gunfighters reflects the rise of contrived self-indulgence and decline of spontaneity.
Manager David Geffen and his partner Elliot Roberts are shown at the start of their careers, which brought them immense wealth. When established companies refuse to give their clients contracts, they form Asylum Records.
"Laurel Canyon" strikingly contrasts with Epix's other summer documentary, the six-part "Helter Skelter: An American Myth," which revisits the Charles Manson Family's murderous rampage in the summer of 1969.
Manson failed to achieve the rock star lifestyle carried out in Laurel Canyon, and the ebullient musicians fostered the family spirit that he defiled.
The Manson Family makes an appearance in "Laurel Canyon," with Love's Arthur Lee describing a visit from Manson follower Bobby Beausoleil, a former bandmate.
Beausoleil, given a life sentence for the murder of Gary Hinman under Manson's direction, tells Lee about living at the Spahn Ranch. When Lee expresses an interest in visiting, Beausoleil warns him not to because of Manson's racism.
The murders ended Laurel Canyon's free-spirited way of life, putting a pin into the bubble, one resident recalls. Crosby remembers buying a shotgun after hearing about the crimes.
Other pressures closed in. The music's soaring popularity and big money made groups unwilling to share their songs. Cocaine was a destructive force after marijuana and LSD, which the film sees as benign. Soon after Woodstock, the peace and love ethos crashed with the violence at Altramont inflicted by the Hells Angels, hired by the Rolling Stones to provide "security" for the rock festival.
Plus, the scene got old. In the film, Michelle Phillips recalls how happy she was to leave Laurel Canyon for Bel Air with her husband, John Phillips, despite their volatile marriage. Michelle says they were still hippies, but rich hippies. She adds they were now part of the establishment.