Laurel Canyon – The Most Compleat Documentary About a Magical Space and Time


There have been several prior documentaries that explored Laural Canyon, some directly and some a bit more oblique. This two parter contains the most footage and crucially the most music, thereby making it the most comprehensive look at this bucolic oasis in the middle of Los Angeles.

The span is about a decade, from 1965 to when money and success eroded the scene. The decade is almost perfectly bifurcated by the darkness of late 1969.

The early days of acoustic harmony (from the likes of The Byrds) is bluntly interrupted when Alice Cooper is/are thrust into the scene, which opens the door to Frank Zappa as the maestro of the Laurel Canyon milieu.
Alice gets a label deal, has some cash and buys a place above Zappa’s. Which is next door to the house of Micky Dolenz. The unlikely interaction of the Monkees and The Mothers of Invention deserves greater exploration. But with so much to cover, the film makers breeze through eye-openers like Harrison Ford building Peter Tork’s music room, and The Beatles and Buffalo Springfield being repeat visitors at the quiet Monkee’s house.
The Mamas and Papas recount their intra-band affairs (decades before Fleetwood Mac did likewise several miles west along the Pacific). The role of The Mamas and the Papas, particularly Mama Cass, has never been fully appreciated, but this film rectifies that “California Dreamin’” was written in NYC years before it was recorded. With slushy footage of cold and grey NYC, the scene segues to the monumental Monterey Pop Festival, with which the Mamas and Papas had much to do.

Buffalo Springfield is formed with an overabundance of talent, after the oft-told chance meeting on the Sunset Strip. Neil Young’s mercurial nature emerges early; Richie Furay said Neil “made it a point to be in and out of the band.” With a man down for the Monterey Pop Festival, Crosby stepped into Buffalo Springfield and ripples ensued.
Crosby is booted out of The Byrds, and the story logically shifts to Joni Mitchell. The visual echo of Taylor Swift still resonates. Elliott Roberts begs to become Mitchells’s manager, and he hires a post-Byrds Crosby to record her first album.
Photographer Henry Diltz is the most frequent talking head, by shifting from musician to ubiquitous photographer he saw (and thankfully documented) much of the scene. Diltz retells the tremendous story of Eric Clapton being gobsmacked by Mitchell’s guitar work at one of Mama Cass’ garden parties.
Enter Graham Nash from across the pond, ready to depart The Hollies and even more ready to bask in the sunshine of LA. Cass introduces Nash to Crosby and Stills, each in search of next steps after Byrds and Springfield.
The results are the harmonic convergence of quite epic proportions. Fortunately, the film producers recorded Crosby and Nash before their current estrangement. Nash points out the crucial role of Stills, who essentially played every instrument on their first album. But to take to the highway, the trio would need more firepower. Enter Neil Young and for their second gig it’s off to Woodstock.
Part One ends with the shift in August 1969 from the blissful vibes of Woodstock and the moon landing in August to the looming darkness of Manson.
As part two gets underway the shooting star influence of Gram Parsons is explained. He sparks the moribund Byrds into the massively influential Sweetheart of the Rodeo album and pulls Chris Hillman into The Flying Burrito Brothers. Bernie Leadon also steps in. He and Hillman then provide the chilling voiceover about appearing at Altamont. The 60s were over.
The Troubadour became the nexus for everyone. JD Souther, Linda Ronstadt, Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt and Lowell George comprised much of the second wave of Laurel Canyon musicians. Each are given sufficient screen time.

Stephen Stills, Neil Young: Long May You Run, July 4, 1976 Niagara Falls (photo by Brad Auerbach)

The role of drugs is far from downplayed, with insights provided from myriad artists.
Egregiously missing is the seminal role played by Poco, without which Eagles would have been something far different and far less.
“Eagles weren’t pioneers, we were settlers,” admits Frey.
Ambitiously, the film ends with the death of Mama Cass, the previously insufficiently unsung catalyst of Laurel Canyon.

Watch the trailer here.


Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.