It was the late 1960s, and Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash were window-shopping in Laurel Canyon when a vase caught her eye and she bought it.
They returned home, and Nash suggested she go out back and pick some flowers, and, in the meantime, he’d light a fire. Nash made that suggestion in part because it would give him a chance to sit at the piano and work on a composition just then popping into his head. The lyrics became:
I’ll light the fire
You place the flowers in the vase that you bought today …
Our house is a very very very fine house, with two cats in the yard
Life used to be so hard, now everything is easy ’cause of you …
And that’s how “Our House” came to be.
One of the joys in the two-part, Epix documentary series “Laurel Canyon” is hearing the stories about the music movement that sprang from the canyon in the 1960s and the 1970s — even if we’ve heard some of these stories before.
There’s Michelle Phillips recounting how John Phillips woke her in the middle of the night to enlist her help in writing “California Dreamin.’ ” Te Doors’ Robbie Krieger wistfully saying of Jim Morrison: “I thought he’d be one of those drunks who lived to be 85.” And Neil Young talking about arriving from Canada in Los Angeles, unable to locate his prospective new bandmates and deciding he’d just leave when he literally crossed paths with Stephen Stills on Sunset Boulevard.
Whereas the brilliant and exhilarating documentary “Echoes in the Canyon” (2018) covered the same territory but also featured Jakob Dylan, Fiona Apple, Beck and others performing covers of classic hits from the era, “Laurel Canyon” is more of a straightforward documentary. It features dozens of talking-head (and off-camera) interviews old and new and footage of the likes of Crosby, Stills & Nash, Linda Ronstadt, Don Henley, Jackson Browne, the Doors and more.
Director Alison Ellwood makes the curious choice of featuring on-camera interviews with photographers and managers and DJs and other peripheral characters from the time, while the musicians are heard in voiceover, with photos or old footage of them playing.
At times, it’s obvious the conversations were recorded long ago. After all, the great Mama Cass died in 1974. On other occasions, like when Mitchell reminisces about the first time she arrived in the neighborhood and says, “There was a friendliness to it, no one locked their doors,” it’d be nice to see her and get some context.
But there are cool little trivia nuggets sprinkled throughout. You might remember the scene in “Woodstock” when Crosby, Stills & Nash took the stage and Stills said, “This is the second time we’ve played in front of people, man. We’re scared s---less.” Nash says the actual first time they played in front of people was days earlier — at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago.
And one can never get tired of seeing the great old TV music show footage, like, John Phillips wearing a fur hat that looks like a large beaver has landed on his head as The Mamas & The Papas sing, “McGuinn and McGuire couldn’t get no higher, but that’s what they were aiming at, and no one’s getting fat except Mama Cass…”
(Mama Cass thought the line was hilarious and said, “We were offensive to the point of being offensive.”)
And there’s something so poignant and beautiful about seeing the young and greatly gifted Mitchell in her home on Lookout Mountain Avenue, with the shingled roof and the giant windows and the natural wood grand piano in the living room and little crystals everywhere. It’s just so … Laurel Canyon.