Tag Archives: documentary

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.

Quincy

Quincy is a 2-hour film about Quincy Jones, directed by his daughter Rashida Jones and Alan Hicks. It debuted on Netflix in September.

Compared to the BBC’s two-part documentary The Many Lives of Q from around 10 years ago, Quincy is an intimate, almost home-movie-ish affair. Rashida Jones and Hicks divide their film into two parallel strands: one that follows present-day Quincy as he produces a stage show to commemorate the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and one where, in voice-over, Q talks about how he got to be the most famous living record producer, and a man so powerful he can just name his cast for the aforementioned stage show and know they’ll drop everything to be there.

It starts, though, with a serious health scare. We begin with scenes of Quincy enjoying various parties, always with a glass in his hand. It isn’t long before someone asks him if he’s going overboard. He says he’s fine. Cut to Quincy in a hospital bed in a diabetic coma. After this near-run, Jones cut out the alcohol and concentrated on work.

As we find out during the biographical sections, Quincy Jones has always worked. To a fault, really. His need to keep working, keep finding new worlds to conquer, is more or less blamed for both his inability to sustain his marriages and the serious bouts of ill health that have punctuated his adult life, including the brain aneurysm that nearly killed him in 1974. The other shadow over his life, one that The Many Lives of Q didn’t discuss at all, was his mother’s serious mental illness, which led to her institutionalisation when Quincy was a child. She subsequently reappeared in his life at various, usually inopportune, times, and Jones remains clearly deeply ambivalent about her.

The film is at its strongest when it shows present-day Quincy putting the show together, and at its most moving when he walks around the soon-to-open museum, looks at the exhibits about the legendary musicians he knew and worked with, and remarks on how they’re all dead, apart from him. Conversations with his fellow living legends (Herbie Hancock, et al) revolve around how old they all are now.

Elsewhere, there’s a little revisionism going on. The film spends comparatively little time on the records for which he’ll always be remembered (Off the Wall, Thriller, Bad, Donna Summer, George Benson’s Give Me the Night and of course We Are the World), the work he produced as an artist (The Dude, Walking in Space, etc.) and the innumerable movie and TV scores (The Italian Job, In the Heat of the Night and Roots, which hardly was mentioned at all). Sinatra is over-represented; Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan under-represented. The Many Lives of Q, with its more linear structure, gives a clearer view of the man’s astonishing career.

Yet, while flawed, Quincy is a success on the whole. Few films about icons give away much about the private individual, and this one definitely leaves you feeling like you’ve got a sense of the man behind the platinum records and Grammy Awards. That’s a trick perhaps only Rashida Jones would have been able to pull off.  Would Q have let his guard down around Asif Kapadia or Alex Gibney? Unlikely. Quincy is definitely worth your time, but if you can find The Many Lives of Q, watch that too. Watch it first, in fact. The extraordinary body of work will make you care all the more about the extraordinary man behind it.

 

 

Scream for Me Sarajevo

The other day I went to see Scream for Me Sarajevo, a feature-length documentary about a 1994 gig the then-former Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson played in the Bosnian capital during the siege.

Directed by Tarik Hodzic, the film is fascinating not merely, or even mainly, for the story of the concert, but for the long section at the start of the documentary where we meet a selection of attendees, metalheads now in their thirties and forties, who talk compellingly and movingly of life during the siege (which lasted almost four years and claimed nearly 14,000 lives). Interviewed separately, they all stressed their passion for music and how important it was in their lives. One man spoke of how in the brief interludes when the electricity supply in his family’s home was working he would dedicate all the time he could to playing his guitar, not knowing when he’d get the chance again.

The concert was arranged by Martin Morris, a British army major attached to the UN peacekeeping force in Bosnia, who took it upon himself to try to give the youth of Sarajevo an escape from the horror of their lives in the city, even if only for one evening. Although the documentary doesn’t say how he did it or whether he had any connections to call on, he eventually got hold of Dickinson and asked him to come and play a gig there. Dickinson, to his eternal credit, agreed – and then told his band that they were going to play a show in a war zone (that bit may be slightly less to his credit).

Morris publicised the show via an underground radio station, persuaded his seniors that they shouldn’t cancel it despite the enormous security risks (they didn’t get wind of what he was up to till the wheels were in motion), then flew Dickinson and the band in and tried to get safe passage for them into the city. This turned out to be harder than planned. The UN refused to fly them from Split to Sarajevo, quite understandably given the heavy shelling that day. Improvising, Morris and his street-smart colleague Trevor Gibson bundled the band and their gear into vans driven by British aid organisation the Serious Road Trip, hoping like hell none of the vehicles would be blown up.

Another filmmaker – a British filmmaker maybe – would have made this story about Bruce Dickinson riding into town on his white horse and making everything better for everyone. Tarik Hodzic is telling a different story, though. Dickinson is an important part of it, and I think it’s clear from the film that Hodzic and everyone interviewed who was at the gig have a lot of respect for Dickinson for putting himself in very real danger when he could have much more easily just stayed at home. But this is the story of a city and its people living through the most desperate of times, and of the power of music to give hope and comfort in even the most terrible situation.

25 Years of R.E.M.’s Out of Time

Let’s break up the drum posts with something different. I’ll be back next week with more underrated drum tracks.

Spin CDs send me an email every day, a little round-up of new and upcoming stock. Their algorithms have done their job well; there is, for instance, a Grateful Dead live album in almost every email (amazingly, a different one nearly every day). Right now they’re hawking the new 25th-anniversary edition of R.E.M.’s Out of Time.

We’ll skip past the 25-years stuff, as no one needs another one of my wistful gee-how-did-I-get-to-be-in-my-mid-thirties disquisitions; it’s probably only been half a dozen posts since the last one. But I will say this, Out of Time is a pretty formative album for me.

I bought it with paper-round money in, I think, early 1995, when the record was about four years old. I’d liked every song I’d ever heard by R.E.M. and while I knew more songs from Automatic for the People (Drive, Man on the Moon, Everybody Hurts and The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite were all big enough hits in the UK for me to have heard them on the radio), I wanted a copy of Losing My Religion, which I knew, but not well; I guess I’d started listening more to the radio in the time between the releases of OOT and AFTP and had started to pay more attention to finding out which artists responsible for songs I liked.

Buying an album for £12.99 when you earned a tenner a week* was a big deal, so every time I bought a record, I played it to death, and didn’t purchase anything without a lot of forethought. I came to be familiar with every note of Out of Time, and it had a huge and lasting impact on my sense of what an album could be.

Out of Time stretched in all kinds of directions. It took the listener on a journey, one with unexpected digressions and tangents. The bassist sang two of its songs (one of which – Near Wild Heaven – had the temerity to be a single), while Endgame was a quasi-instrumental with a lyricless Michael Stipe vocal. Opening track Radio Song had an unlikely guest appearance from KRS One (it’s not widely loved, but I’ve always liked how they sound like they’re enjoying themselves). Low was stark, minimal and tense – not much more than Stipe’s voice, some muted guitar chords and Bill Berry’s congas. Shiny Happy People was, well, you know what it was (and I like to think it was on some level a parody). Losing my Religion was one of the great singles. Half a World Away and Country Feedback were the album’s sad, confused heart. Out of Time was by turns goofy and dark, happy and sad; up and down, high and low.

I didn’t understand when hearing it as a 13-year-old that few albums actually worked like this, that most strive for a streamlined consistency in which all the songs are good in essentially the same way. I imagined that R.E.M. were working to a formula other bands also followed. Not so. Twenty-five years later, I hear Out of Time‘s uniqueness, and love it all the more.

There’s a two-part documentary on BBC 6 Music at the moment (thanks to Sara for alerting me to it), narrated by long-time friend of the band Billy Bragg, with contributions from Berry, Buck, Mills, Stipe and producer Scott Litt. Well worth a listen if you’re a fan.

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*I was a teenage guitarist in a band, so I needed to pay for my share of rehearsal-room hire costs and buy new strings, cables, etc. We practised more or less weekly (not that you’d have been able to tell), so typically I could afford a new record once a month.