Review: Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time

There will be two documentaries released in Tokyo theaters this month about Laurel Canyon, the leafy residential adjunct to Los Angeles that acted as an incubator for the storied Southern California Sound of the late 60s and early 70s. This particular film, a distillation of a two-part cable TV program, is a more traditional music doc in that it straightforwardly explicates the development of the scene in a chronological fashion, and in that regard it’s the better choice if you are inclined to take in only one. The other movie, Echo in the Canyon, which opens at the end of May, is more like an excuse for rocker and narrator Jakob Dylan to pay tribute to his musical forebears without having to mention that his father was pretty much responsible for those forebears in the first place, though to me his main sin was not mentioning Joni Mitchell, one of the canyon’s most famous denizens. She even titled an album after the place. 

Though Alison Ellwood does a good job of delineating the source of the SoCal sound, she leaves out a seminal aspect of the scene, which is incumbent in the very title of her movie: real estate. The reason Laurel Canyon attracted so many musicians is that, at the time, it was cozy and cheap; certainly cozier and cheaper than Los Angeles proper. More importantly, its relative seclusion owing to its precipitous hills, winding roads, and prodigious vegetation offered would-be stars a sense of isolation that was not only vital to their art-making endeavors, but allowed them to mingle with one another in a relaxed manner that would have been near impossible in the city. Most of the visuals are supplied not so much by moving picture footage or video but by Henry Diltz’s still photography, which captures the communal sense of the place. Diltz, in fact, came to Los Angeles as a musician himself with the Modern Folk Quartet, a group whose rootsy sincerity provided an aesthetic foundation for most of the artists who would eventually represent the SoCal sound, in particular the Byrds, which were the Beatles of that scene if not of American pop music in general at the time. Of course, the gigs were in L.A., most prominently Sunset Strip clubs like the Troubadour and the Whiskey A Go Go. For a while, there was not a whole lot of stylistic distinction being made between folk, pop, and rock and roll until certain groups emerged to popular acclaim. Though Crosby, Stills and Nash (and, later, Young) are presented at the quintessential Laurel Canyon act, they wouldn’t have developed their own sound without the precedent of Buffalo Springfield, Love, the Mamas and the Papas, and even the Monkees, all of whose members lived in Laurel Canyon. Even Frank Zappa and the Doors, whose own unique styles sprung from that early scene, can be considered part of the mix, and while Ellwood gives Zappa short shrift, she makes a very good case for the Doors being not only the outlier of the scene, but its most influential and exciting act. 

The movie starts getting wobbly, however, when it moves into what the various narrators term “the 2nd wave,” which centers on artists like Jackson Browne, Gram Parsons, the various singer-songwriters revolving around Linda Ronstadt, and, most significantly, the Eagles, who started out as Ronstadt’s backing band. Though no one can deny the Eagles’ place in rock history, their effect, at least for me, is mostly contingent on the intensifying nexus at the time between rock music and capitalism. The movie makes the case that the explosive popularity of the Eagles essentially ended the Laurel Canyon scene, though their ascendance merely coincided with its demise. The money was already pouring in before “Take It Easy” changed things for the worse. Real estate, right? 

Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Cine Qualite (03-3352-5645), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551).

Laurel Canyon home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 Canyon Films LLC

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