‘Laurel Canyon’: A Snapshot of Music as Magic

There are sometimes legendary moments in the history of art and media. There are the artists of the Renaissance. The writers circle of the 1920s. And, of course, there are the musicians of Laurel Canyon. It is with this last group that Alison Ellwood is concerned with in her brilliant new Epix docuseries Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time.

Starting with the transcendent impact of artists like Bob Dylan and groups like The Beatles, the sort of loose hippie communion of Laurel Canyon grew almost entirely organically after Frank Zappa found a new kind of harmony living in those hills.

Soon bands like The Byrds, The Mamas and the Papas and Buffalo Springfield were popping up seemingly overnight. The prime days of Laurel Canyon lasted a mere 6 years, from 1966-1972, and yet some of the most timeless and revolutionary music of the 20th century emerged from that tiny little microcosm of life and art in the Hollywood Hills.

There, surrounded by nature, and each other, some of the most prolific musicians of all time fed each other and ate from one another’s hands, artistically speaking. They partied together, lived together, slept together, and got high together.

They also endured some of the most important historical events of the 20th century. From the moon landing to the Kent state massacre to Woodstock to the Manson murders, the songs of Laurel Canyon flowed out of those hills and, as a movement, they spoke to the world.

Alison Ellwood documents it all in Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time. Aided by photographers Nurit Wilde and Henry Dlitz, she interviews one musical legend after another over the nearly three hour run time of the docuseries. Linda Ronstadt, Don Henley, Jackson Browne, Gram Parsons, Eric Clapton, and literally dozens of others tell their stories of this magical time in music and how it looked from the inside.

How the groups came together, who discovered who, and the back stories behind the incredible songs that emerged as the days turned into weeks, months and years. There are no video interviews, just pictures and videos from the time, punctuated and overlaid with the wistful narration and fantastic stories of those who lived through it all. Because, yes, death did come to Laurel Canyon too.

The downward spiral of The Doors’ Jim Morrison, the sudden death of Mama Cass of The Mamas and the Papas, and the rippling impact that the aforementioned Manson murders had on the artists of Laurel Canyon, as well as the hippie movement at large, are all put under a microscope in Ellwood’s documentary, and new layers of each tragedy emerge with the raw experience that her interviews allow for.

Even the notorious deaths of 4 fans at a free Rolling Stones concert are given new light. The events, immortalized in the documentary Gimme Shelter, are but a footnote here but, all the same, they speak to Ellwood’s comprehensive style of documentary filmmaking. More concerned with the feeling of Laurel Canyon and what made it so magical, Ellwood takes the time to allow her subjects to ponder on these prolific events but never for so long that they become the central focus of Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time. 

While the end of this era does inevitably come, there isn’t any one central event that seems to cap it off. The Eagles emerge as stadium stars, cocaine leads some of the musicians to the end of their ropes, and creative growing pains sink one group after another. Then, suddenly, priorities change and the artists that made Laurel Canyon such a transcendent space eventually leave it behind, one after another.

Still, the music remains and, punctuated by it, Ellwood’s docuseries is as close to entering that world is any of us will ever get. If, like many film fans last year, you were enamored by Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, then you will likely find some of the same movie magic here in Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time. 

Some eras must be felt to be understood, and a docuseries like this offers some of that feeling to viewers in a way that few other experiences could imitate. With both parts available to watch now, Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time is well worth your while if you’ve still got a case of the quarantine blues. With times as dark as they currently are, a little escape into this legendary world might be just what the doctor ordered.

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