Judge Michael Rankins is a legend in his own canyon.
"Together for a brief period in time, a small community of musicians made history. They are Legends of the Canyon."—Henry Diltz, rock photographer
"Sometimes, if you don't get in your own way, life will unfold as you never imagined."—Henry Diltz
Drawing on his amazing photographic library, as well as his personal memories and those of many others who were part of the folk-rock music scene in 1960s Los Angeles, Henry Diltz—official photographer for the supergroup Crosby, Stills & Nash (and sometimes Young)—recounts the making and breaking of the unique sound that emerged from Laurel Canyon, a peaceful neighborhood in the Hollywood Hills.
Facts of the Case
"We were young. We were smart. We were ambitious. We loved America, and to have it in the hands of corrupt politicians and greedy corporations that have no governance, that was abhorrent to us. So we all fought against that. The music was the catalyst, and drugs were the fuel."—John Hartmann, talent agent
In the mid-1960s, with seismic social change sweeping the nation and the era of free love and psychedelia dawning, an eclectic new style of music came alive in southern California. Part electric folk, part British Invasion, with liberal dollops of jazz, bluegrass, and Eastern influences stirred in for good measure, the "West Coast sound" took the musical world by storm.
Among the interconnected artists who led the movement were Buffalo Springfield, The Byrds, The Mamas and the Papas, Joni Mitchell, and Crosby, Stills & Nash. The latter became one of rock's first supergroups, merging the talents—if not always the clashing personalities—of David Crosby from The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield's Stephen Stills, and British import Graham Nash of The Hollies, with sporadic collaboration from Stills's former bandmate, Neil Young.
Legends Of The Canyon is the story of this musical phenomenon, told through the voices of many who lived the experience. In particular, it's the tale as viewed through the lens of Henry Diltz, once a folk-rock pioneer himself (as a member of the seminal Modern Folk Quartet), and later the official tour photographer for Crosby, Stills & Nash (to be referenced hereafter as CSN, because fishing for the ampersand is killing me).
"I think a lot of things got in the way. The regret is…overall, the regret is music that didn't get made."—David Crosby, musician
At first glance, Legends Of The Canyon feels a little like a real-life takeoff on A Mighty Wind, Christopher Guest's mockumentary about survivors of the early '60s folk music revival. In fact, Legends is a well-crafted slice of rock photojournalism, leading the viewer through a segment of pop music history that garners relatively little attention today—the L.A. scene that witnessed the transformation of traditional folk music into America's answer to the Beatles. Specifically, Legends focuses on the community of artists who lived, loved, and played in Laurel Canyon—a list that reads like a Who's Who of West Coast pop in the age of Woodstock.
Using musician-turned-photographer Henry Diltz as the pivot point of the discussion, director-producer Jon Brewer gathers an impressive array of interviewees—all three members of CSN (but not their on-again, off-again partner Neil Young); Michelle Phillips, sole survivor of the original Mamas and the Papas; music impresario David Geffen; and a host of insiders, outsiders, and hangers-on from back in the day. All of the personnel offer thoughtful and cogent (remarkably so, given the free-flowing pharmaceuticals that characterized the period) insights into the people and events that made Laurel Canyon a nexus for '60s rock giants and the songs they created.
The stories entertain, the personalities engage, and Diltz's photographs—the visual palette from which the film's backdrop is painted—draw the audience vividly into this singular time and place. Reminiscences range from the sublime to the ridiculous (Diltz, in particular, holds in his head a bonanza of juicy backstage lore, of which this two-hour film can only scratch the surface) to the tragically poignant. A segment devoted to Mama Cass Elliott, the heart and soul of both her vocal group and the entire Laurel Canyon enclave, is one example of the latter; the emotional first-person account of Dallas Taylor, CSN's longtime drummer who was summarily kicked to the curb during the band's second tour, is another.
Because of Diltz's intimate association with CSN, a good half of Legends Of The Canyon centers on that august trio/occasional quartet. For better or worse, this means that many of the other acts essential to the Laurel Canyon scene get short shrift. This is especially true of The Byrds, arguably the architects of the L.A. folk-rock sound, whose role in the Legends narrative feels underdone. The same could be said of Joni Mitchell and Frank Zappa, two Laurel Canyon residents whose contributions are at least influential in rock history as those who rate more attention here. Mitchell gets notice as a muse to most of the groups, but precious little screen time is devoted to her own stellar body of work; Zappa barely rates a passing reference. It's also strange that perhaps the greatest musical powerhouse in 1960s L.A.—the Beach Boys—remains all but invisible in this storyline.
That may well be the only solid criticism to be leveled at Legends Of The Canyon, and ultimately, it's not a crippling one. Brewer and Diltz get away with a bit of tunnel vision, thanks to the crystal clarity with which they see the subjects on which they choose to focus. Hearing Messrs. Crosby, Stills, and Nash dissect their conflict-ridden collaboration in their own words is potent stuff, and the rest of the guests all bring fascinating gifts to the party as well.
It's hard to say how much appeal any of this material would have for an audience too young to recall the Summer of Love, or the musicians whose work shaped the era. But for anyone who grew up hearing this music blaring from the tinny speaker of a transistor radio or from a car stereo system, Legends Of The Canyon provides a pleasantly immersive ride in the old Wayback Machine.
Image Entertainment serves up Legends Of The Canyon in a beautifully appointed package, featuring a colorful folding case inside a matching slipcover. The disc itself is nicely put together. The documentary relies heavily on old photographs and archival footage, so the visual presentation varies from decent to just adequate; the interviews filmed specifically for the feature are for the most part clean, brightly lit, and effectively arranged in the frame, with varying perspectives used to shoot the participants. The stereo soundtrack is clear and listenable, though I would have preferred to hear greater presence from the music under discussion. For an independent documentary made without frills, the sights and sounds are perfectly acceptable.
By far, the most enticing bonus content on this disc is the unedited video of several interviews director-producer Jon Brewer conducted during the making of Legends Of The Canyon. In addition to the complete comments of the three CSN principals—David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash, each of whom was interviewed separately—we have the full interviews with Gerry Beckley, best known as one-half of the folk-rock duo America; Ron Stone, CSN's longtime manager; and singer-songwriter Van Dyke Parks. Viewed in their entirety, these interviews provide a wealth of background that fleshes out the story told by the finished documentary.
"The Naming of Buffalo Springfield" is a short featurette cutting together the clashing remembrances of the title event by Stephen Stills, a founding member who affirms that the name was his idea, and Van Dyke Parks, who also claims credit. ("In his dreams!" retorts Stills.) The viewer can judge whether, given the psychedelic nature of the times, either of these gentlemen's recollections 45 years later can be considered reliable.
"Henry's Acid Trip" presents a segment of interview footage relating exactly what the title promises: Henry Diltz describing his personal experiment with LSD. It's a funny story that, while it doesn't fit anywhere into the feature's narrative, merits preservation.
Two segments of silent bootleg footage, one from Diltz's personal archives and another taken by a fan at a Stephen Stills solo concert in Oklahoma City, will be of interest only to the most obsessive completist. It's hard to imagine anyone else (aside from a DVD reviewer) enduring more than a few seconds of these grainy videos of musicians playing without soundtrack. If you're up for the challenge, however, the producers have come through for you.
Finally, the disc offers four discrete slideshows of Henry Diltz photos—some vintage, others taken during the filming of the documentary. Many of the older images also appear in the film, but there's enough fresh variety here to make these presentations worth a peek.
Perhaps the grooviest (if I may use that word) extra in the Legends Of The Canyon package isn't on the disc itself. It's a full-color booklet (some of the photos are in original black-and-white) featuring Henry Diltz's snapshots and captions. Reminiscent of the liner notes that occasionally shipped with albums back in the pre-iTunes era of LPs (and later, CDs), this booklet makes a nifty little memento to be enjoyed long after the DVD has begun collecting dust on a shelf.
"I think it was a good era, in the sense that it opened up civil rights and the ERA. I think it also left legacies that weren't that good. There was too much promiscuity, too much dope, too many people lost their lives or lost their minds. But a lot of good music came out of there."—Nurit Wilde, rock nightclub lighting technician
Like a cool breeze through the canyons of the L.A. basin, Legends Of The Canyon affords a brief moment of timeless pleasure. You can almost smell the patchouli oil and sensimilla. If you remember the times and/or enjoy the music, you'll find this disc worth a spin.
Sweet Judy Blue Eyes, Batman—it's not guilty.
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