My mother was a child of the ‘60s, which means some of my earliest friends were Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Joni Mitchell’s voice filled my college years with the promise that it wouldn’t be long before I dragged my feet to slow the circles down, and she was right.
It’s with an acknowledged bias and love for this era of music that I say Laurel Canyon is a fascinating new docuseries, now streaming on EPIX. From director Allison Ellwood, the captivating two-part film follows the distinctive group of musicians who wrote iconic songs while living in the notable Los Angeles neighborhood in the late 1960s. The dreamy and entertaining film is brimming with songs that aren’t really captured by their titles, but by their feelings: California Dreaming, Our House, and Both Sides Now. Songs we still hear on parents’ records or rock radio stations, or in the ending credits of Mad Men.
Groups from the Monkees and the Byrds to the Doors and the Mamas & the Papas are featured in the series, reminding viewers that they all lived in the same neighborhood at one period. Singer-songwriters like Linda Ronstadt, Graham Nash and Jackson Browne tell stories of this period of their lives in their own words, while fans, photographers and other unexpected voices like Steve Martin describe what it was like to live in such a creative hot-spot at a pivotal point in America.
Ellwood refreshingly shies away from the basic documentary talking-head trope. We see only old camera footage of these musicians living in Laurel Canyon at that special, specific time – never seeing them now, but only hearing their voices reflect on the importance of that period of music – and life. This only adds to the effect of the film: the idea that it was such a narrow window, an entire genre of music narrowed down to one special place and time.
But Laurel Canyon is especially timely in 2020, when comparisons to the 1960s are prevalent. Political turmoil and civil rights protests are just a few circumstances that led to this ineffable art. To everything there is a season, the Byrds and Bob Dylan and Ecclesiastes all say, and there’s no season quite like this one to escape into Ellwood’s docuseries. Though a dreamy and enjoyable look into a “music utopia,” these writers were using their hit songs to really say something – and we could use some of that right about now.
With two 80-minute episodes, Laurel Canyon is the rare documentary that feels too short – like there’s more to tell about this time, and place, and people who enriched it. The series wraps up at the end of the decade – a lesser-known concert hosted by the Rolling Stones tried to emulate Woodstock and failed miserably, ushering in a new decade and a new period of American tumult. Sound familiar?
As we feel this time period fading away, the subjects move out of Laurel Canyon and into newer, richer neighborhoods. They share less music and less spirit – but thankfully we still have the songs, and this fascinating documentary about the stories and streets behind them.