The new Epix series “Helter Skelter: An American Myth,” weaves its story out of the culture’s collective memory of LA’s infamous Tate-LaBianca murders, committed by drug-addled cultists in the thrall of Charles Manson.
In half a dozen episodes, documentarian Lesley Chilcott, who earned her bonafides as a line producer on “An Inconvenient Truth,” parks Manson firmly in the world of celebrity and uniquely late-’60s sin that produced hippies, Altamonte, Crosby, Stills Nash and Young and the “back to nature” environmental movement.
Working with fresh interviews with surviving members of “The Family,” she creates visual and aural collages that suffuse the film in its “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” era, and immerse the viewer in what we’ve forgotten that we remember. Still photographs of the Spahn Ranch, archival footage of the vivacious starlet Sharon Tate and the hip LA “scene” — The Daisy nightclub, Sunset Strip streetlife — spare recreations and generous samplings of Manson’s music, including demo tapes, paint a picture of a charismatic guy (he died in prison in 2017) with delusions of pop stardom and dreams of fame in an place built on the promise that “anything can happen.”
And when the fame didn’t work out, the music being a tolerable imitation of the airy fairy folk pop of the day, the dark acid-fueled fantasies of “a race war” and the hidden meanings of The Beatles’ “White Album” (including the song that came to signify the crimes, “Helter Skelter”) came to the fore. Manson sent his most loyal followers into the summer LA night to kill, write “Death to the Pigs” in blood, and start the revolution he was sure he’d come to rule.
Archival news footage shows how the crimes were covered, from that first morning after, when reporters asked questions they already knew the answers to from cops who’d been slow preserving the crime scene.
“Was there anything written on the door?”
Episodes with titles like “Charles Manson is Your Brother,” “Nobody Joins a Cult” and “Some Bad Mistakes” take us on Manson’s journey, with surviving “Family” interviewees such as Dianne Lake, Stephanie Schram and Catherine Share laying out what they know and heard from him and pieced together over the decades.
The women, almost to a one, tend to look back incredulously on their involvement, with Schram still dazed that “You kind of gave up your identity” when you fell under Manson’s influence.
The series makes a fascinating, if repetitive and incomplete account of the crimes and the prosecution for them. This isn’t prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s best seller on “the case.” It’s “How we got there” oriented, dwelling on Manson’s obsession with fame and the allure he had for not just teenage girls, but to actors, Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson and others.
He was a part of this ferment, and you can’t help but wonder if there’s a Castro sort of “What might have been” in his story. Fidel Castro was an aspiring baseball player with talent who gave up that dream and refocused his energies on revolution. Manson suffered disappointments and humiliations. Songs like “Cease to Exist” and “Sick City” weren’t going to get any sober record producer’s attention (and several heard them). So Manson, with the help of drugs, embraced madness and sent his minions out to murder in the hopes of starting a race war he figured he’d win.
In any event, Epix has a series (Sunday nights through August) that makes a fine companion piece to Quentin Tarantino’s tale of the end of one era and “the coming darkness” of another, “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.” It’s a good primer on the time, the crime and the criminals that Tarantino liked to imagine “Old Hollywood” could vanquish, like the villains in the third act of a run-of-the-mill TV Western.
MPAA Rating: unrated, discussions of violence, crime scene photos
Cast: Charles Manson, Dianne Lake, Catherine Share, David Dalton, Stephanie Schram, Bobby Beausoleil, Ivor Davis
Credits: Directed by Lesley Chilcott, created by Greg Berlanti, Barbara Kopple. An Epix release.
Running time: Six episodes @:55 minutes each.