There is a tendency in biographical music documentaries for the subject to be grandiose. With their best work usually behind them, they like to bloviate about the good old days. This is especially true for musicians whose heydays were in the 1960s and 1970s—they often harbored the delusion that their tunes could change the world. David Crosby: Remember My Name is engaging when it resists that kind of hagiography. Now that Crosby is sober and no longer performing with his contemporaries, he is upfront about his failures and mistakes.
The film is a feature debut for director A.J. Eaton, but producer Cameron Crowe leaves the strongest impression. Crowe, prior to becoming a filmmaker himself, was a journalist for Rolling Stone in the 1970s. He interviewed all sorts of musicians from that period, and was just 17 when he first met Crosby in 1974. They chat on a visit to Los Angeles, with Crosby stopping by his old haunts. These interviews are the bulk of the film, with plenty of concert footage from his days with The Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash. Modern footage is remarkable because Crosby’s voice is as clear and heartbreaking as it was 50 years ago. He does not have an explanation for why his voice still sounds as good as it does.
Since Crosby has a reputation as a blowhard, his humility here is impressive. In the wake of Woodstock, he infamously went on The Dick Cavett Show and talked about what he saw as if he had just found the cure for cancer. This facet of Crosby’s life embrasses him, but his biggest regrets are his personal relationships. He was a monster to Joni Mitchell, who finally excoriated him in a way only she could—she performed a newly written break-up song in front of all their friends. Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young all refuse to talk to him. Roger McGuinn, who co-founded The Byrds with Crosby, ultimately kicked him out of the band. These regrets are a psychic weight on Crosby. Despite a healthy family life, he is a profoundly lonely figure.
Crowe and Eaton are not revisionists, so they seek to put Crosby in a more complete, ultimately flattering context. No one wants to see a man in his 70s be full of youthful arrogance, and Remember My Name is successful in disabusing that notion. Crosby can be so forthright that it’s almost funny. Upon arriving in Los Angeles, for example, he goes back to a famous bodega and notes that nothing important actually happened there. Pictures of his old friends are all over the walls, and he remarks that all he ever did was buy groceries. Classic rock musicians are sometimes deified, and Crosby’s attention to detail helps us understand that they were struggling, ordinary people who did not have all the answers.
While he was middle-aged, Crosby became a punch line. Drugs and alcohol made him a wreck, and he even attempted to flee a jail sentence. He is not proud of this period, although he seems determined to reflect upon it with accuracy. When Crosby gives himself up to the FBI, the archival footage is not of an outlaw. Instead, we see a desperate man who barely escaped death. This kind of brutal honesty is the only way Crosby and the filmmakers can convincingly atone for his misdeeds. Redemptive arcs like this are commonplace in biographical documentaries, but at least Eaton and Crowe do not conjure the narrative from nothing.
Crosby can no longer fill halls and stadiums by playing “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” In fact, Remember My Name includes the last-ever Crosby, Stills & Nash performance. It was at the National Christmas Tree lighting in 2015, with the musicians performing a truly awful version of “Silent Night.” Crosby’s loneliness, creativity, and chronic illnesses left him with an uncertain path ahead. Now that he is pushing 80, walking that path is not quite heroic, but it’s close.
David Crosby: Remember My Name opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.