Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time

Over the last couple of Friday nights, Mel and I watched Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time, a two-part documentary series by Alison Ellwood, who previously made History of the Eagles and The Go-Go’s. The former is punishingly overlong; the latter I’ve not seen but have heard great things about.

The history of LA rock from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies is a story that’s been told before. Recently, even, with 2019’s Echo in the Canyon. The most successful documentary about the period that I know, though, is the BBC’s 2007 film Hotel California: LA from the Byrds to the Eagles, which was directed by Chris Wilson and based on Barney Hoskyns’s book Hotel California: Singer-Songwriters and Cocaine Cowboys in the LA Canyons. That film was visually unspectacular but really solidly researched and put together, with contributions from many of the era’s key players: musicans including Van Dyke Parks, Mark Volman, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Bonnie Raitt and JD Souther; figures from the scene like Pamela des Barres and Ned Doheny; musician-photographer Henry Diltz; and managers and record-label execs David Geffen, Ron Stone, Jac Holzman and Billy James. Wilson even interviewed Marxist urban theorist Mike Davis.

Ellwood’s film is heavier on musicians than Wilson’s doc, and while there was no place for any heavy thinkers like Davis, she did get interviews from the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, from the Doors’ Robbie Krieger and Ray Manzarek, from Love’s Johnny Echols, from Alice Cooper, from Michelle Phillips from the Mamas and the Papas, and from the Eagles’ Don Henley and Bernie Leadon.

The key point of difference, through, was her decision not to put anyone on camera except the photographers Henry Diltz and Nurit Wilde: interviewees’ reminiscences are accompanied by footage or still images of them from the time period. Ellwood has said that the intention was to make the film immersive. To me, it was somewhat distracting, at least initially, and I missed seeing facial expressions and body language.

It’s far easier to control what you say out loud than what the eyes and the body are saying. One key moment from Wilson’s BBC film is David Geffen talking about the argument he had with Troubadour owner Doug Weston over the latter’s refusal to book David Blue. As Geffen recounts the fight that led him, Elliot Roberts and Peter Asher to go into business with Elmer Valentine and Lou Adler and open the Roxy, a look of pure steel enters his eyes that’s, frankly, a little chilling. Previously, he’d come over as an avuncular presence, a hippie businessman who really did just love music and whose motives in starting Asylum were totally pure. In that small moment, he let slip the steel that made him feared and hated among those he didn’t represent. Ellwood’s decision to (with the exceptions of Diltz and Wilde) only use archive footage – very trendy at the moment – denies the viewer any similar moment of accidental revelation.

This gives it something of an “authorised biography” feeling, as does the presence of Henley, who is the most ruthless operator of all the musicians involved, never agreeing to anything unless he can control it and there is a definite upside for him. Accordingly, nothing remotely compromising got in about Henley and the Eagles, and as anyone who’s read Hoskyns’s book could tell you, there’s a lot about he and his bandmates that’s compromising.

The other, bigger, issue was that, partly as a result of its length (around three hours), Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time is somewhat shapeless and baggy.

The inclusion of Love, the Doors and Alice Cooper is both a strength, in as much as it differentiates Laurel Canyon from other films on the same era, and a weakness, in that their stories are essentially tangential to the main narrative, and take up a lot of time that could have been better spent elsewhere. For example, Ellwood barely mentions Carole King and James Taylor, which is baffling. Whether you like them or not, it’s not possible to properly tell the story of singer-songwriters in LA without dwelling at length on Sweet Baby James and Tapestry.

Ellwood is on record as a huge Doors fan, so I guess it’s understandable, but it’s also, I think, a mistake – one that’s both symptom and cause of the main problem with the film: it’s lack of an overall narrative thread.

In the latter half of the seventies, the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriters drifted out of relevance and, in many cases, into severe addictions to alcohol and cocaine. But the documentary stops before that happens, which prevents Ellwood bringing the narrative to a proper close. We get to see all these musicians become big stars, then just leave them there. There’s a lot to learn about why the early period of the Laurel Canyon era (roughly 1966-1970) was artistically and spiritually fulfilling for the musicians and the seventies era was not if you just follow their stories until the end. Instead, the film just sort of stops, narrative threads blowing around in the wind.

Now, this all sounds very negative, and I should say that Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time is not a bad piece of work by any means, especially if you’ve never seen Hotel California: LA from the Byrds to the Eagles. The new interviews are interesting, the sheer amount of archive pictures and film (many of which are home-movie, Super-8 type stuff) is impressive, and the establishing shots are stunning (the evolution of cheap camera-drone technology has done wonders for documentary crews in the last ten years or so). It’s just a shame that Ellwood and her team didn’t edit it down into a tightly packaged 90-minute film that told a more coherent story.

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