At a time when the US is under much pressure and being reviled around the world, often with an ugly sense of schadenfreude, two films that released earlier this year (in America so far, hopefully elsewhere later) provide a much-needed perspective on the country’s cultural influence that changed the world for good. Once Were Brothers and Laurel Canyon are ostensibly just music documentaries but like the music itself, a lot else.
Once Were Brothers tells the story of The Band – formed by four Canadians and an American, beginning life as a back-up band (as the Hawks), and then being chosen by Bob Dylan in the mid-1960s to be his touring band. Dylan’s presence and ensuing influence inspired them to artistic courage and originality that elevated them to becoming one of the most influential and revered music bands in rock history. Sadly, their story ended prematurely, but with the greatest send-off in music history till date – Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Waltz. Forty-four years after that landmark goodbye, this film tells their entire story, from their main songwriter Robbie Robertson’s point-of-view, addressing later years controversies as well.
Laurel Canyon is a two-part miniseries that tells the story of how a rustic suburb in central Los Angeles became an unlikely centre in the 1960s for a musical revolution that changed not just America but the world. At its centre was another Canadian musician who had moved there – Joni Mitchell, confident in an otherworldly way, with a gift for the ages, using her own influences to become a huge influence herself eventually in an ecosystem that also spawned The Byrds, CSN&Y, Buffalo Springfield, The Doors, The Mamas & the Papas, Jackson Browne, The Flying Burrito Brothers and many more, including the Elvis of the 1970s – Linda Ronstadt, who made many a career by simply covering an artist’s song with her once-in-a-generation voice.
Once Were Brothers notably touches upon Dylan’s world tour with The Band in 1965/66, when they were roundly booed every time (sometimes even had stuff thrown at them) as they began their blues-rock set, at venue after venue, because of those who believed Dylan was besmirching the purity of folk music. The disturbance was to an extent where members of The Band (with an average age of 24) lost confidence, and a “beat-up” Levon Helm even quit.
A steely and defiant Dylan, himself just 25, least interested in cashing in on his already legendary “folkie” status but on expanding the boundaries of popular music would say “just go on playing” to his band-members when the booing began. To his audience, he would snarl, “You all may remember this song and how this goes, well, here’s how it goes now.” What might have looked like masochism then actually was one of the most significant cultural moments in history, as it literally changed the world’s expectation from popular music.
Thereafter, The Band settled down near Woodstock, New York, and created some of the most influential music in history, both with and without Dylan. Their initial solo albums mixed folk, blues, gospel, R&B, classical, and rock and roll with American history in a way that had never been done or has been since then.
Among the many stories in Laurel Canyon is also one about 23-year-old British Blues star Eric Clapton visiting Los Angeles in 1968, making a trip to Laurel Canyon, being invited to a house where 25-year-old Joni Mitchell was tuning her guitar and playing. He was so transfixed and blown away by her unique tunings and what she was doing with them that it played a significant role in his changing musical direction and focussing on becoming a singer-songwriter himself, much in the footsteps of what those musicians were doing (curiously, The Band‘s debut album was his other big influence).
The musical movement, even revolution, spawned by the Laurel Canyon-settled musicians was about looking inwards using the musical idiom of its time, an inner seeking that led to the “confessional” singer-songwriter, most memorably established with Joni Mitchell’s 1971 masterpiece ‘Blue‘. Dylan’s searing take on the confessional album would constitute the “singer-songwriter” movement’s apogee with arguably his finest album as well – 1975’s ‘Blood On the Tracks‘, but that’s another story. But those familiar with Rodriguez’s story (from ‘Searching For Sugar Man‘) who failed to make a mark in the US in the early 70s and was rediscovered after becoming a star in South Africa years later, would understand why even his quality music had little chance to stand out amidst the dizzying standard of music coming out at that time.
As Dickie Davis, the former manager of Buffalo Springfield has said in another documentary on the subject, in that period of LA music, the bedroom was the Laurel Canyon neighbourhood, the living room was the Troubadour (the club where many of those artists made their mark) and the church was marijuana. Definite mind-expansion and flights of seeking notwithstanding, in the last lies the main reason for this movement not lasting longer, primarily because of its upgradation to cocaine and heroin, and the destruction in its wake. And also because capitalism had the last say even there (as evidenced by the rise and trajectory of Eagles).
But, at its peak, the vulnerability that many of the Laurel Canyon artists embraced to create that music itself became the product. It also became the tilling and the fertilizer that shaped America’s cultural soil, becoming the conscience of not just that country at the time but of a promising new world, that despite the crime on the streets and wars on the anvil, constituted a trajectory that might have transformed it forever, “hippie” slurs notwithstanding.
The progressive and humanist slant of that trajectory is often overlooked today. It wasn’t just because of the second wave of feminism that more women made indelible marks on American music at the time than any period in their history till date, but because of the prevailing mindset then of individual talent over all else. Of course, now we have those who dismiss that as “white privilege” but look the other way when asked to explain the path-breaking African American music of the time (Spike Lee wouldn’t have a soundtrack for his films even today if not for that period) was embraced so emphatically by the mainstream. It went far beyond the momentum of the civil rights movement. Artists like Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder in the 1960s/70s (very much products of their time, including its political climate) ended up having as much social impact as leaders like Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr did. Franklin and Wonder were in their mid-20s at their creative peak, while Gaye was in his early 30s.
At a time when the average age in The Beatles was 28 when they split up after changing the world creatively (something disconcertedly unthinkable today), youth actually represented something entirely different than what it does now. It was the most productive creative period in culture, not just music. It is worth asking if the greatest loss to the human race in recent years is the vital life-force of people in their 20s taken out of human evolution, especially the cultural component.
Instead of young people unflinching about confronting their innermost feelings, we now have a generation terrified of a point-of-view that is not their own. Instead of an appetite for clear-eyed discourse and reason, it is borrowed emotional outrage advocating half-formed ideas now, generating palpably postured empathy. Instead of a healthy exchange of ideas and celebrating their diversity, this youth is now shutting down conversations by invoking a mob in the name of outcoming diversity. Instead of seeking and exploring, they are warring and instigating, with the ludicrous idea that solidarity within a group (an unabashed call to tribalism) is more meaningful than individual talents or beliefs. Instead of building on universally undeniable evolution for greater equality, the ‘woke generation’ wants to tear down the results of hard-fought battles with no clarity about what to replace it with, deluded enough to believe they can “correct” history. The ‘start-up’ generation wants to restart history.
In any other era, they would have been laughed out of every room, instead of adding to the zombification of society; it really shouldn’t have required the Harper’s letter to accentuate this. The quality of celebrities at any given time and place reveal all about the societies they represent. On that count, the two above-mentioned films demonstrate what is really different between that generation and this one. The celebrities of that time were people whose music has lasted more than 50 years, not as nostalgia or even inspiration but as sheer stand-alone songs, even if taken out of context. Forget creating music that lasts even five years now, most of the celebrities of these times seem unable to even build on the enormous strides that generation made (which uncoincidentally chimes in with the woke mindset as well).
With social media meeting unbridled capitalism, with virtue-signalling and low attention spans lighting the way forward for the youth today, it is not surprising to hear the highly disposable music around us, with comic book cinema and “shock content” prevailing. They haven’t got here in a vacuum of course; the generations before led them to this too. But “illiberal left” is a long way to travel from good intentions, and it is really is time to look at the bigger picture before any irreversible damage is done.
Our cultural preoccupations are the most potent markers of this decay. Which is why it might be hugely valuable for new generations to visit these two highly entertaining and enriching films about American East Coast/West Coast music for the ages. And find within themselves a Bob Dylan who takes on the mob and wins big or a Joni Mitchell with the poise and confidence to reinvent an art form. And also to understand why the US’s real superpower was actually cultural.
Jaideep Varma is a writer and film director.