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Not too many documentaries about the lives and times of Rock 'n' Roll legends are really worth seeing. We may enjoy the 'history' segments in concert films like The Last Waltz, but we're really there to hear the music. Plenty of cheapie docus feature a decent interview with a certain star, but haven't the means to license relevant clips of film and music. Even the DVD edition of A Hard Day's Night can't afford to put any Beatles music in the background of its insightful docu extras.
Legends of the Canyon, with the long sub-title The Music and Magic of 1960s Laurel Canyon, as told by Legendary Rock Photographer Henry Diltz has its shaky aspects but benefits greatly from its choice of narrator. While singing in a group called The Modern Folk Quartet in the middle 1960s, Henry Diltz began taking pictures of his friends and other musicians. Because he happened to have some exclusive pictures of a top group, his hobby quickly led to a career as a photographer for album covers, which led to even closer associations later in the decade. Along with video and film from other sources, Diltz's photographs and candid 8mm movies provide excellent visual glue to bind together Legends of the Canyon's many interviews with stars, agents, club owner and "people who were there" at some interesting points in rock history. Living in Los Angeles, we knew that Laurel Canyon was traditionally a center of creativity. An animator friend lived up there, and when my children went to the Wonderland School in the 1980s I realized that the spirit of a quasi-hippie community -- creatives with money -- was still in force. Henry Diltz was a fly on the wall for a lot of drama just a mile up from Sunset Blvd., and in Legends of the Canyon he gives us a good look at it.
The show is built around candid interviews with prime players in the music world circa 1968 or so. Michelle Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas describes the vibe up in the Canyon, where people could live in rented houses instead of apartments. The musicians loved the laid-back atmosphere. We even see the country store slightly down the hill. More input on the Canyon's mellow mood comes from Nurit Wilde, who was a lighting technician at both the Whiskey and The Troubadour. Wilde cites the canyon's proximity to the Sunset Strip as the determining factor in its popularity.
Although other groups and musicians are touched upon -- Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin -- the key Laurel Canyon- based musicians covered are (David) Crosby, (Steven) Stills, (Graham) Nash and (Neil) Young, and the top talent that moved in their orbit. All but Young contribute lengthy interviews that cover all aspects of their career and times, making Legends of the Canyon a valuable resource for serious R&R fans. Like protons spinning off the earlier groups The Byrds, The Hollies and The Buffalo Springfield, these musicians reformed into a very special unit. They talk about group chemistry and the in-residence artists that impressed them -- Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell especially. Cass Elliot is described as a sort of social Earth Mother who brought people together. Crosby and Stills remember Joni Mitchell as a songwriting dervish capable of generating great tunes one after another.
Diltz's home movies of the Canyon and Hollywood are rather shaky but his still photos are excellent and make a great backdrop for the stars' descriptions of life in this particularly mellow fast lane. Steven Stills and Neil Young had fought like cats and dogs during their time with The Buffalo Springfield, and when they teamed up again they simply repeated the experience. The new group had ups and downs, as when David Crosby's girlfriend was killed in a car wreck. Of course, CS&N's first triumphant moment came at the very beginning at Woodstock. Henry Diltz was invited to document the preparation for the giant music festival; his film clips of the show are quite good.
The interviewees get into a lot of personal detail as well as descriptions of the changing comfort level in their recording sessions, which range from totally harmonious to impossible. The show eventually touches on the subject of drugs, which were a major setback for David Crosby. He ended up doing some time in prison. Crosby takes a thoughtful attitude toward all of this in the interview. He wishes that the hard drugs had never come into his life, not necessarily for what they did to him, but for the music that never happened. Further comment on the quality of the music that did get recorded comes from successful agents, group managers and even mogul David Geffen, who appears to have gotten his start representing some of these creative geniuses.
Legends of the Canyon reaches a bit toward the end, with sweeping statements about the anti-war movement and the bummer end of the 60s, using the usual montages of assassinations, Kent State, Charles Manson, etc., to gauge the state of the nation. A clip from The Colbert Report shows Crosby, Stills and Nash still happy with their anti-war and anti-Nixon songs. Henry Diltz interrupts a few times too many with pungent generalizations about what it all means, but he's not a pompous fellow. And he certainly was there to witness and record a lot of enjoyable Rock 'n' Roll history. It's time to go drag down my old Joni Mitchell albums!
Legends of the Canyon does have plenty of music on the soundtrack, often the very songs being described in the interviews. Slightly grainy clips from the CS&N performance at Woodstock are present as well. Viewers won't feel shortchanged in the music department.
Image Entertainment / Classic Artists' DVD of Legends of the Canyon is a not-bad encoding of a docu made from source material of varied quality. The interviews look fine, with professionally recorded sound. Most of the 8mm footage is okay and the stills are very attractive. As the show is formatted widescreen and given a 16:9 squeeze, some of the flat material is compromised by 'adjusted' scans that stretch faces on the horizontal axis. This makes musician Dallas Taylor look decidedly odd. But this is not a big complaint.
The disc's extras gallery contains plenty of attractive Diltz material, including uncut home movies from the Canyon and a trip to Big Bear, other home movie footage, and plenty of still photographs. Uncut interviews with some of the key people are also present. The 20-page color insert booklet features more Henry Diltz photography arranged in a scrapbook form, with Diltz's personal remarks.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Legends of the Canyon rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.