By Chris Willman, Variety | Occasionally a high-profile film or TV documentary arrives at just the right time to appear as if it were created to address the frustrations created by another high-profile documentary, however coincidental the timing. That’s certainly the case with Alison Ellwood’s “Laurel Canyon,” a feature-length doc about the Los Angeles rock scene of the ‘60s and ‘70s that’s airing as a two-parter on Epix on May 31 and June 7. It’s not exactly an “answer song” to “Echo in the Canyon,” a much-debated 2018 theatrical release that covered a lot of the same ground, but it does address a few important questions left hanging by its predecessor. Like: “Where the hell was Joni Mitchell?” She’s in this one — there are two shots of her within the first minute of the credit sequence, to immediately reassure us there will be ladies of, and in, the canyon this time around.
The biggest problem with the previous doc — other than how it betrayed, rather than transcended, its origins as a glorified EPK for a Jakob Dylan duets project — was that it arbitrarily set a cutoff date for the end of the movie, with the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield breaking up in the late ‘60s, as if that really marked the end of an era. It was like seeing a promising pilot for a series that never got green-lit, leaving out not just Mitchell but Jackson Browne, the Eagles and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young as Joni-come-latelies. Ellwood’s “Laurel Canyon” happily extends the timeline into the mid-‘70s. That affords us milestones like the arrivals of Browne and Mitchell in the woodsy ‘hood as baby-faced wizard-cherubs, the Mitchell/Graham Nash live-in romance that produced the song “Our House,” country music supplanting folk as the dominant extra ingredient in the rock stew. It also allows for the advents of David Geffen, arena-rock and cocaine, any one of which the canyon’s casual vibe might not have survived.
Ellwood, the director of “History of the Eagles,” a movie that was weirdly liked by Eagles fans, detractors and even the actual Eagles (and who also helmed Showtime’s terrific upcoming Go-Go’s documentary), does her best to occasionally darken the door of this bungalow heaven. Long shadows are cast from a world beyond the canyon (Kent State, Altamont) and, in the horrifying case of the Manson murders, within it. But let’s face it: this project exists as an excuse to indulge in highly warranted nostalgia for a golden age, enveloped in a slightly-above-the-smog-level golden haze. “Laurel Canyon” is a nearly four-hour exercise in bliss, throwing us back to a fleeting time when musical warmth and formal excellence went hand in hand and made the whole world want to go “California Dreamin’.” With apologies to Joni Mitchell, this, not Woodstock, is the garden you’ll be left wanting to get back to.
One of the questions no one asked after seeing “Echo in the Canyon” was: “Where the hell is Alice Cooper?” But he’s in this, too, not in his later guise as a shock-rocker, but as a kid arriving fresh outta Phoenix in the late ‘60s as a protégé of (and next door neighbor to) the canyon’s log-cabin-dwelling freak outlier, Frank Zappa. Most of the names are more expected ones: Love, the Doors, the Flying Burrito Brothers. But that Zappa and especially Cooper come up for mention is a good example of Ellwood not keeping her focus too narrow in search of a common theme.
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“Laurel Canyon” premieres on Epix in two parts May 31 and June 7, at 9 p.m. ET/6 PT.
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