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November 26, 2019

Call of the Canyon

In an EPIX doc, a director dives deep into the L.A. enclave that inspired folk and rock legends.

Margy Rochlin
  • “Mama” Cass Elliot

    Henry Diltz Studio
  • Joni Mitchell

    Henry Diltz Studio
  • Graham Nash, Stephen Stills and David Crosby

    Henry Diltz Studio

Several prominent music documentaries have focused their lenses on Laurel Canyon, that tree-lined Los Angeles enclave where legends like The Byrds, The Mamas and the Papas, Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills & Nash lived in the 1960s and '70s, inspiring one another while writing and performing some of their most enduring compositions.

In just the past year came Echo in the Canyon, a narrowly focused birth-of-a-sound chronicle, as well as bio-docs on Linda Ronstadt and David Crosby, who both extol the mid-city hippie idyll.

But early 2020 will bring — in a two-hour, two-night event on EPIX — director Alison Ellwood's Laurel Canyon, whose defining feature is its sheer scope.

To tell the story of how some of the most globally influential music was made there between 1965 and 1975, Ellwood interviewed more than 30 musicians, managers and record producers, including Roger McGuinn, Jackson Browne, John Mayall, Graham Nash and the aforementioned Ronstadt and Crosby.

"It was fascinating, all of the artistry that came out of this one place in this one little window of time — it was just a hub of creativity," says the Australian-born Ellwood. In the hopes of making Laurel Canyon as experiential as possible, she takes a no-talking-heads approach, letting the disembodied famous voices reminisce over footage culled from thousands of hours of often rare archival interviews and recordings.

Ellwood made her name as the award-winning editor of bracing long-form socio-political TV documentaries on PBS's Frontline, and began collaborating and codirecting with producer-director Alex Gibney in 2011 on Magic Trip: Ken Kesey's Search for a Kool Place.

When it comes to subject matter, Ellwood declares herself as "all over the map — as long as I'm learning something, it excites me." But she kicked off the music doc phase of her career six years ago by directing History of the Eagles, a two-part miniseries that aired on Showtime, about the soaring heights and acrimonious lows of the American soft-rock band.

Granted, some fans may feel that Laurel Canyon is a tale they already know — blue-jeaned musicians grooving in countrified L.A., where doors stay unlocked and living rooms rock with transcendent jamfests. But Ellwood's legacy project allows for the fact that while magic did, indeed, take place there, the human memory is a delicate thing.

"There's the classic story about where Crosby, Stills & Nash first sing together," says Ellwood, about David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash's legendary the-whole-is-greater-than- the-sum-of-its-parts discovery of one another.

"Was it at Joni's house? Was it at 'Mama' Cass's house? Depending on who you talk to, you get a different answer — and they're actually quite adamant about their opinions."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 11, 2019

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