Chasing music and moving images with David Crosby’s documentarian
“I wanna be a guy who is loving.” Below filmmaker A.J. Eaton exclusively redeems one of rock’s most infamous hippies — or jerks — if you dare to broach the subject with David Crosby’s former bandmates like Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, Neil Young, and Byrds Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman.
Eaton’s David Crosby: Remember My Name premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in competition, a feat rarely bestowed to music-oriented documentaries, and earned raves. The 95-minute film contains Crosby interviews tinged with hope, regret, harmony, and whether it is too late to mend burned bridges conducted off-camera by Jerry Maguire mastermind Cameron Cowe. Grammy nominated for Best Music Film, Eaton’s passion for Remember My Name is the real deal.
The A.J. Eaton Interview
I have 30 questions, but as usual I’ll be deviating from that list to go wherever the conversation may lead. So, who inspired you to become a filmmaker?
That would be my father, Steve Eaton, a songwriter. Over the years he was hired to write music for a number of Northwest film/TV programs as well as nature documentaries. In the late ’80s he was approached to write music for a regional PBS documentary about vanishing small towns in Idaho. This prompted him to write one of his best songs, “The Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.” What a statement, what a title.
I was quite young, so my memory is vague, but I was definitely captivated by these glimpses into the technical process and alchemy of marrying music and moving images to tell a story. It’s a mystifying recipe, but when these two forms of art are combined harmoniously, you feel it. It’s magical. I’ve been chasing that ever since.
Coming of age in Idaho, what films impacted you?
I became obsessed with any movie that John Williams [e.g. Jaws, Star Wars, Superman, Indiana Jones], Jerry Goldsmith [Chinatown, The Omen, Alien, Star Trek: The Motion Picture], James Horner [Apollo 13, Titanic, Avatar], and Alan Silvestri [Back to the Future, Predator, Forrest Gump] would score.
One of my favorite things was buying a soundtrack, which at that time was released a couple of weeks before the movie opened. I would listen to it and try to imagine what would be happening in the movie. Sort of like reverse engineering!
Our local cinema would get the major Hollywood movies — the Indiana Jones franchise, the Back to the Future trilogy, The Goonies, The Abyss, the Jurassic Parks, etc. — and I was often there or at the video rental store that, oddly, in my small town also sold home appliances. That’s where I discovered National Geographic and Disney documentaries and eventually independent films. My first favorite documentary was The Making of Thriller [1983, directed by Jerry Kramer].
You were not a normal kid.
No, not at all. I grew up outside the city limits in rural Idaho in a home where our dad had a recording studio. Musicians were around a lot. Due to our remote location we could receive only one television channel via terrestrial antenna. We didn’t have a satellite dish, so my younger brother Marcus and I mostly relied on our imaginations and creativity for entertainment. My brother gravitated to a guitar, I found a video camera, and the rest is history.
In high school, literally and figuratively, I was an outsider. Being a non-Mormon in a predominantly Mormon high school, I didn’t have many close friends. I found connection elsewhere through my interests in film production, theater, and music.
I had this really cool part-time job working at an advertising agency. Through that I became friends with a commercial director who was an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences member. He’d moved from California, and I would often skip class to help him out on commercial shoots just to see how a film set worked. This led to me assisting him while he edited trailers and directed commercials during my first year of college.
As you learned about Floyd Crosby’s prestigious 1931–1967 Hollywood career as a director of photography, which films contain his best work?
I love Tabu: A Story of the South Seas  and High Noon . Floyd won a Golden Globe for High Noon, while Tabu is a documentary that netted him an Oscar. Tabu is not only a remarkable achievement in cinematography but also a feat in filmmaking because they were shooting remote locations for the first time. There’s a series of shots where natives are running through the forest with beams of sunlight breaking through the canopy above. It’s truly the work of a shadow and light master. Extraordinary.
I see Remember My Name as a father-son story in many ways. At the beginning of the movie Croz is leaving home and risking it all to go out on tour and work in spite of his precarious health [liver transplant recipient triggered by Hepatitis C, a decades-long drug addiction which he conquered, multiple heart attacks including eight stents, and diabetes].
Ten minutes later, Croz talks about his first memory of watching his father pull himself up into the belly of a B-52 bomber to fly away during the Second World War. It’s like Croz is repeating what his father did.
As we were shooting, I kept the spirit of Floyd in the back of my mind. I often wondered, ‘How would Floyd shoot this?’ I tried to use the type of [now vintage] lenses he would have used. Hopefully I emulated his framing style.
How did you meet Croz?
I met him through my brother. Croz is a connoisseur of guitars and loved Marcus’ playing. This turned into them working together on Croz [recorded over several years but not issued until January 2014], Croz’s first solo studio project in 20 years.
Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, I was aware of Croz’s past struggles with addiction, that he had spent time in prison, and that he was the recipient of a liver transplant. When given the invitation to stop by the studio and meet Croz, I didn’t really know what to expect.
But after I arrived and heard the music Croz, Marcus, and Croz’s son James Raymond were making, I was totally surprised. The music was fresh and luscious, and I was equally impressed at how active and lucid Croz’s mind was.
I sat down and started visiting with him. I mentioned something about the jazz-inspired chord changes, and Croz immediately perked up. I realized that these were the type of conversations Croz was yearning to have. From that point forward, we were friends.
I’ve been around musicians my entire life. I’ve witnessed those who pushed beyond what was their prime, and others who should be making new music but are not. They’re not inspired or sadly, full of excuses.
Remarkably, Croz managed to arrive in a tranquil mental place, came to grips with his turbulent past, and keeps writing new songs and exploring new ideas. As he puts it, “The muse is stopping by.” I soon realized the recording of Croz was indeed the dawn of a third act renaissance for Croz, and that it would be a shame if footage wasn’t captured of this rare occurrence.
By chance can you recall the song that Croz was recording the day you connected with him?
I do [Eaton prompts his memory by singing part of the hook — “For you to look out, look down, reach your hand into the water”]. “Radio” is about the brotherhood of sailors who help each other when they’re in need on the ocean. It taps into Croz’s love of sailing. I remember watching them all harmonize and working on the lines together. It was really cool [laughs].
I didn’t know you could carry a tune. I appreciate you allowing me access to that kinda unknown aspect of your life.
[Laughs]. Besides coming from a musical family, I worked as a composer at one point. Not a very good one, I might add. Marcus, however, has taken the family musical torch. He co-composed the score for Remember My Name.
How did you sculpt Remember My Name’s musical score?
As the movie began taking shape, we realized there were places where a needle drop wouldn’t work. We were going to need musical score, which would need to feel like it was drawn from Croz’s musical landscape and influences.
So, I naturally called on Marcus, who is an expert on the open guitar tunings that Croz and Joni Mitchell pioneered, and Bill Laurance, the lead keyboardist for Snarky Puppy and another recent Croz collaborator on Lighthouse and Here If You Listen. Bill, just like Croz, is a big admirer of jazz piano greats like McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, and Chet Baker. I thought that Marcus and Bill blending their respective dispositions and genres could yield unique results.
The challenge for the score was to delve deep into Croz’s subconscious and create music that would resonate at certain moments. For instance, Croz sharing anecdotes before he began writing music, reminiscing about his turbulent relationship with Joni, getting fired from the Byrds, buying his infamous Mayan sailboat with financial aid from Monkee Peter Tork, getting photographed and smoking pot with Henry Diltz [part of the Monkees’ inner circle], or admitting that many of the main guys he’s made music with like Graham, Neil, and Stephen Stills won’t even talk to him. What should music at these moments sound like?
The soundtrack is a treasure trove, particularly the deep cuts. Croz strumming an acoustic guitar and scatting his way through an early sketch of what metamorphosed into CSN’s “Wooden Ships” is revelatory as the closing credits roll.
We discovered so many musical gems. The “Wooden Ships” early demo is definitely one of them. As that cue begins, the chords are dark. You hear Croz subtly humming almost like a stream of consciousness, and then it modulates into a more positive, blissful melody — like he’s worked it out in his head in the end — at the end!
Towards the beginning of the movie, as Croz is leaving home and we see an aerial shot of his car driving away from his beautiful house, we use a rare acoustic demo of “Guinevere” [the master is track three on Crosby, Stills & Nash’s self-titled 1969 debut].
We also found examples of Croz’s earliest songwriting including “A Girl Once Told Me.” He was discovering who he was as an artist — Croz’s crooner phase! We feature a cool demo of Neil Young, Graham Nash, and Croz writing “Music Is Love” [the opening cut from Croz’s 1971 solo debut If I Could Only Remember My Name] in the studio.
But the cue I’m most in love with is “Where Will I Be?” [Graham Nash David Crosby, 1972]. There’s a layered humming section that almost sounds like a hymn as we see Croz pricking his finger for his diabetes testing, then struggling as he’s loading his own luggage in the car, driving down that lonely country road [Eaton sings, “Where will I be when I go back home”], and finally that heartbreaking hug with his wife Jan. It’s hard to fathom how a 30-year-old Croz could compose a song to his future, wiser self. But he did.
What prompted you to start the documentary with Croz animatedly recounting the drug-fueled evening he experienced Coltrane soloing with abandon onstage and in the bathroom of McKie’s, a jazz club on the South Side of Chicago, in the early ’60s with British guitarist Clem Floyd and a four-foot German hooker named the Duchess in tow?
At one point during a studio hang, I remember Croz telling this funny story about being higher than three kites strung up in a series, going to a Coltrane concert, ducking out to the bathroom, and cooling his head on the green tile. Wham! Coltrane kicks in the door and plays a solo in the bathroom.
I couldn’t forget that story. So when Cameron Crowe and I were at Croz’s residence shooting one of his interviews, we urged Croz to share it again. He revealed more details, including the part about the Duchess [laughs].
Although we knew that we needed to open the movie with the stakes at hand — Croz’s health is not ideal, he’s taking major risks to go out, will he make it through this tour and return home — we still needed an attention-grabbing shot that would be the audience’s first impression of Croz.
This explosive, funny story encapsulates a whole lot of his history and character in one short shot, and it’s followed by and contrasted with his blunt omission that he’s afraid to die. This sets up a level of expectation for the movie the audience is about to see.
Returning home from a tour that was cut short, Croz suddenly lies down on his lawn. Was that endearing finale scripted?
Not at all, and this happens to be one of my favorite shots in the movie. I was at Croz’s house shooting and asked him to show us around his yard and just say what was on his mind. He laid down on the lawn, began playing with his dogs, looked up at the trees, and started to share what he was thinking [“that’s the first thing I fell in love with here — the trees”].
A moment later in the movie, we see him reach over the fence and pet Jan’s horse. He doesn’t ride the horses — that’s Jan’s hobby. I love the symbolism of what this shot says, like he’s reuniting and attempting to reconnect with Jan.
Jan has been a godsend to Croz. The love they still have for one another isn’t manufactured, and I will empathize with her should Croz pass away first. I knew very little about her until catching Remember My Name.
She sure is. To my knowledge, it was the first time Jan agreed to be interviewed on camera and talk about her sometimes painful 42 years with Croz.
As you can see in the movie, the Crosby home is a peaceful place. And it can’t be easy when a film crew comes in and disturbs this peace, asking a bunch of intrusive questions and opening up past wounds.
Cameron and I were both telling Jan that we wanted — and needed — her to be part of this movie. However, she was reluctant. The day we shot Croz’s interview at home, she went and locked herself in the bedroom with their five dogs. I know she was upset hearing Croz talking about his fear of death and it being close — it wasn’t easy for any of us behind the camera, either.
Our day of shooting was winding down. We took a short break, and suddenly Jan came out of the bedroom. Her hair looked great, and she was dressed nicely. She said to me, “Okay, I’m ready.” I looked with wide eyes over at Edd Lukas and Ian Coad and then said to Jan, “How about sitting at your kitchen table? We’ll point the cameras right here.”
We quickly set up and started asking her questions. Jan answered each and every one of them very courageously. This was when she said that line at the end of the movie — “I might just disappear” — as she’s crying. It still weighs heavily on me to think about that heartbreaking, real admission.
Did you consider asking Croz’s six kids to participate? Eldest child James Raymond, a multifaceted musician, songwriter, and producer of Croz and Sky Trails, was placed into adoption without Croz’s knowledge and never stumbled upon his hippie father until he was 33 years old in 1995. His amazing trajectory seems like a no-brainer for inclusion.
We considered the children component. There’s James Raymond and the unbelievable story about him reuniting with Croz. There are also the two daughters, one who talks to Croz [Erika] and another who doesn’t [Donovan]. There’s Django, his son with Jan and the only child he’s actually raised. And then you have Bailey and Beckett Cypheridge, the Melissa Etheridge kids.
Croz has lived such an epic life, and it would be impossible to contain everything into one 90-minute portrait. The children, we felt, would be a whole other movie. But, the Blu-ray does feature an extended scene about James Raymond.
Was the approximately 90-minute running time what you always had in mind for Remember My Name?
A director mentor often said, “It should be as long as it is good.” As we were cutting away, our mantra was that no scene — nor the entire movie — should overstay its welcome. We thought about captivating and holding the attention of audiences in this day and age where attention spans are collectively shorter, and an hour and a half felt like the optimum length. At film festivals I’ve had a lot of people tell me, “I could watch another hour of this!” That’s a great spot to be in. Better than the opposite, right?
How much footage was captured for the documentary?
I met Croz when he was 69 years old, and he’s now 78. Over the course of eight years I shot copious amounts of vérité footage of Croz recording four albums, a number of solo and full band tours, rehearsals, Laurel Canyon, Hollywood, at his home, Henry Diltz, and four or five sit-down interview sessions with Cameron.
The studio recording footage ended up not making the cut, but I needed to shoot it in order to understand that we didn’t need it — that’s filmmaking. In all, probably hundreds of hours of footage.
Do you have plans to excavate that mountain of unseen footage?
The Blu-Ray will have some deleted scenes and extended interviews. I would love to explore a full director’s cut in the future and, of course, a soundtrack featuring the many unreleased demos and the musical score. Fingers crozzed!
Have founding Byrds Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman or Stills, Nash, and Young offered any feedback to you since Remember My Name’s premiere?
The Byrds participated in the documentary and have seen it. I know Stills and Nash have watched it, but I’m not sure about Mr. Neil Young.
Can you shed light on your next project? Are you taking a break from mounting another documentary?
I might do another documentary at some point, but for now I’m focusing on my feature called Angler that I wrote and will direct next spring [fingers crossed]. I’m currently casting and putting the production together.
[Former 42West publicist Betsy Kaplan interjects, “Hey guys, sorry to jump in, but we have time for one last question”].
Do you concur with Croz’s antipathetic opinion of Jim Morrison and the Doors? That never ceases to amuse me.
How do I want to describe that? Croz’s jealousy of Jim Morrison could be the underlying reason. I love the tale of Jim jumping offstage [it’s a safe bet he was compelled by questionable substances] during a 1966 Doors performance at the Whiskey a Go Go in West Hollywood, pulling off Croz’s sunglasses, and exclaiming to the Byrds harmonizer, “You can’t hide behind those shades!” Croz, tripping on LSD, “teleported to the other side of the room and never forgave him for that” [laughs].
Either Jim was going to be Croz’s archrival, or they were going to be best friends. It’s akin to the contentious relationship between Formula One racing drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt in the ’70s [depicted in Ron Howard’s 2013 drama Rush starring Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl].
Any parting words before we say goodbye?
I’m just so proud and honored to have worked with such a dream team of collaborators who believed in me and this movie — Michele Farinola, James Keach, Jill Mazursky, Greg Mariotti — and everyone at PCH, BMG, and Sony Pictures Classics. It’s been an adventure.
Croz and Jan have been approached dozens of times by filmmakers wanting to make a movie about them. I’m honored that they trusted me and Cameron with their life story and the formidable responsibility of using the music Croz has made — that means so much to so many — with the respect and reverence it deserves.
Working with Cameron has been one of the most creatively rewarding and illuminating experiences of my life. He’s the definitive music movie oracle. We managed to make a film that transcends that of a documentary about a famous musician and tells a story about hope, regret, harmony, and what we do with the time we have. People have told me the movie has made them consider their own interpersonal relationships and friendships. It inspires me that Remember My Name could perpetuate friendships to be mended.
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