‘David Crosby: Remember My Name’ emphasizes the life, not the art

In David Crosby: Remember My Name, the long-haired rock scion allows the camera to catch him in two moments of empathy. Describing Christine Hinton, whose death in a 1969 car accident accelerated a descent into a miasma of addictions, Crosby uses her as a stand-in for the “hundreds,” in his words, of women whom he has treated wretchedly — the girlfriends he turned on to heroin and coke, for example, the abuse of which led to prison terms for charges of hit and run and possession of concealed weapons in the 1980s, not to mention a liver transplant (Phil Collins paid for it!) a decade later. Noting that “Croz,” as his friends refer to him, got tut-tutting fingers shaken in his face for years because of the glow of his iconicity doesn’t diminish the depths of his agony. Crosby’s awe of Joni Mitchell, unleavened by self-congratulation, is the other grand moment here. Briefly lovers, he and Mitchell collaborated on her debut, which he produced, sympathetically despite the not-thereness of her material; Crosby is gentleman enough to insist that Song to a Seagull‘s flaws are on him. “She was the best songwriter of us all. Hands down. No question,” he declares.

Directed by A. J. Eaton and co-produced by Cameron Crowe, Remember My Name has no interest in upsetting the usual gait of the Behind the Music approach to rock documentary. The privileged background shown in sepia-tinged photos (Croz’s father, Floyd Crosby, won an Oscar for shooting F.W. Murnau’s Tabu), the frustrations of his Byrds period, the heights of Crosby, Stills and Nash (and Young), the lows of addiction, the latter-day redemption, the Love of a Good Woman (wife Jan Dance) — it’s all there. Most of the interviews with Graham Nash, Neil Young, et. al consist of archival footage — piquant, to be sure, but not revelatory unless you need former Byrds mate Roger McGuinn confessing, “Well, David was becoming insufferable. You didn’t wanna hang around him.” Portions of the doc unfold as animated scenes for reasons known best to Eaton.

What sustains Crosby isn’t songwriting — in the last five years he has quietly released four solo albums, a few of whose pleasant, innocuous selections watchers can savor. Singing does. Despite the half century of abuse, his voice remains clear, high, puckish: the sound of a teenager awed by what he gets away with, or “a sunbeam through glass,” in Amanda Petrusich’s phrase. Which makes Eaton’s decision to ignore Crosby’s musicianship a puzzle. A mention of his penchant for alternate tunings gets no development, not even to draw the lines between the producer of Joni Mitchell and the writer of “Guinnevere” and “Song with No Words (Tree with No Leaves).” John Coltrane comes up for the sake of a droll anecdote, but how did Coltrane’s phrasing on the sax influence Crosby’s harmonies and guitar work? With his first solo album enjoying a deserved reappraisal, it might have behooved Eaton to ask, say, Bon Iver or Angel Olsen if they remember Croz’s name. Filmmakers like politicians repeatedly underestimate their audience’s appetite for schooling.

No doubt Eaton thought that the survivor and Twitter crank coalesced into a better story. The secondhand accounts of Crosby-as-asshole — Nash and Young won’t speak to him for sundry reasons — reaffirm the accumulated contempt with which those who weren’t there the first time regard his generation’s narcissism. To his credit Crosby accepts the blame without equivocation; eight coronary stents and a new liver can reshape one’s intimations of mortality. And he hasn’t softened his liberalism as he’s gotten older; he might’ve loved guns during his cocaine psychosis, but there are no Reagan-had-some-good-ideas in Crosby’s closet. The image of a counterculture laughing stock nearly shorn, he deserves a film that reckons with the nuances of the writer of “Laughing” and the septuagenarian who expects to drop dead any day. David Crosby: Remember My Name isn’t it.

GRADE: B-

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