At 77, the white-haired troubadour David Crosby can boast an enviable career as a founding member of both the Byrds and Crosby, Stills and Nash, as well as a prolific solo artist. Just don’t expect pretty pictures. Directed by A.J. Eaton and produced by Cameron Crowe, the doc doesn’t skip over Crosby’s years as a heroin and cocaine junkie who did five months of Texas prison time on drugs and weapons charges. And it definitely doesn’t soft-peddle his reputation as an SOB who pissed off damn near everyone he’s ever worked with. “I alienated all of them,” says Crosby, and the film is loaded with examples. Roger McGuinn of the Byrds calls him “insufferable.” Graham Nash and Neil Young both let him have it. Joni Mitchell broke up with him with a song.
Crosby doesn’t defend himself — he knows he’s not easy. The rock star insists that he never wrote or sounded better because of the drugs he took. He also knows the fact that he’s still alive is some kind of miracle. A diabetic with eight stents in his heart, Crosby has had a liver transplant and remains convinced that his heart will kill him in just a few years. These sound like the words of an old man, but nothing about the man on view here suggests infirmity or self pity. He can lunge right at you. Listen to the anecdote he tells about encountering John Coltrane mid-performance — one genius in thrall to another. It’s electrifying.
What makes David Crosby: Remember My Name one of the best rock docs of all time is the no-bull immediacy of the filmmaking. The past comes up via visits to the Laurel Canyon Country Store where Crosby and his colleagues made their earliest music. Though the impact those songs had in the 1960s and 1970s still resonates, Crosby himself resists sentimental nostalgia. He’s tough on his foes, especially Jim Morrison, but toughest on himself and the times he wasted indulging his baser instincts. Crosby acknowledges the ghosts that haunt him, but refuses to get tangled up in the cobwebs. Though we see archival clips and photos of the musician through the years, with the timeless sounds of “Helplessly Hoping,” “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” “Carry On” and “Déjà Vu” alive on the soundtrack, it’s the way the film and its scrappy subject live so potently and provocatively in the present that make it indispensable.
Crosby continues to record solo albums that thunder with immediacy and purpose. And his voice resonates with a honeyed clarity that seems untouched by time. The film benefits from the savvy presence of Jan Dance, Crosby’s wife of 32 years, and the music that helped define those years. Otherwise, Remember My Name avoids the use of talking heads to remind us of Crosby’s lasting greatnesss. The film believes in the efficacy of show over tell. Expect no apologies from this lion in winter. Hear him roar.