Documentary Review — “40 Years in the Making: The Magic Music Movie”

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The best “What might have been” documentaries about musicians that disappeared (“Searching for Sugar Man”), bands that fell “just shy of making it (“Anvil!”) are the ones that have the best explanations, excuses and screw-ups that reveal how they missed that big brass ring — record deals, big tours, wealth and fame.

“40 Years in the Making: The Magic Music Movie” has a doozy. Several doozies.

And when your biggest fan from way-back-when is a big-shot TV writer and producer, the world’s going to hear those excuses and laugh along with you as you relate the ways you set out to NOT make it.

Lee Aronsohn has a resume littered with hit series, from “Who’s the Boss?” to “The Big Bang Theory” and “Two and a Half Men.” But when he was in college in Boulder, Colorado in the ’70s, there was this band that he’s never been able to get out of his head.

Magic Music was a quintet of singer/guitarists, flutist, tabla, spoons and banjo players, a self-described “hippie jam band” with Eagles harmonizing, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band bluegrass chops and a cult following. Aronsohn decided he’d track them down, round them up and put on a reunion show.

And he’d get the answer to his burning question, “Why didn’t you guys ever break out?”

They had a meeting with Tree Publishing, one of the most famous music publishers in Nashville and all of North America. They wouldn’t sign the deal because they were put off by the guy’s shoes. They were denied an arranged meeting with big time Capital Records in LA, kicked out for showing up barefoot.

Booted from a Cat Stevens tour here, abandoning a record in mid-recording there, these guys — “not a business mind among us” — had their shots, even though listening to their music you can hear what managers, music biz professionals and others heard — “You haven’t written a hit record” or a song that could become a hit. Titles like “Mole’s Stumble” were never going to get them on the charts.

Not that “I just wanna be like the animals, I wanna live close to the ground, I just wanna be like the Indian, and see my Maker all around me,” doesn’t have a late-hippie/John Denver “Rocky Mountain High” vibe to it.

But Aronsohn gets beyond the “what might have beens” and into the lives they were living then, “back to the land” hippies living on a commune, then basically creating their own, calling converted school buses “home” in El Dorado Canyon, Pagosa Springs and other remote corners of the mountains outside of Boulder.

They’d tour, play bars, make music, fall in love and bring women into their lifestyle. And every so often, they’d get a shot, only to be told “You need a drummer” or something else they didn’t want to hear.

Egos got in the way, a need to be pure and “not contrived,” and then life happened. Some fell out, all moved away and yet they pretty much stayed in touch.

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“The Magic Music Movie” is  interesting as music and cultural history, tracking the band from flannel and overalls protest folk to bluegrass, against a backdrop of Vietnam, Watergate, marijuana and Earth Day. But where the film is fascinating is the ways it examines the wandering lives of working musicians who stay in touch with the tunes even as life goes on.

One later toured with Carole King. Another played in Vegas backup bands. One cut records and had hits in Europe, one tried disco, one sailed off to Mexico, playing with expats where he settled. One became a cabin and “tiny house” builder, another a visual artist; marriages, families, divorces, drugs, alcoholism — and 40 years later, they could still hit the harmonies and put on a reunion worth preserving on film.

Maybe that’s a happy ending, even if they and their fans are wistful for what might have been. But few bands can claim a better collection of “Funny story about why we didn’t” anecdotes than Magic Music.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, drug and alcohol use and abuse discussed

Cast: Chris Daniels, Bill Makepeace, Lynn Poyer, Greg Sparre, Will Luckey, George Cahill, Rob Galloway, Kevin Milburn

Credits:Directed by Lee Aronsohn. A Magic Music release.

Running time: 1:39

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