Neil Young wasn’t interviewed for the documentary “David Crosby: Remember My Name.” Neither was Stephen Stills. Definitely not Graham Nash, who hated Crosby so much that he wrote a song about his offstage combativeness called “Encore” (“What are you gonna say to the last person leaving?”)
At 78, Crosby is a folk-rock icon, a two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee for his work in The Byrds and Crosby, Stills and Nash, someone who should be beloved and honored by his contemporaries. Instead, he admits frankly in “Remember My Name,” he finds himself largely alone in the music world, having burned so many bridges: “All the main guys I played music with hate my guts.”
On the other hand, being a social pariah beats being dead. That seemed like the more likely outcome for decades, given Crosby’s history of heroin and cocaine abuse. “Remember My Name” is a fascinating and intimate look at Crosby, a perhaps unlikely survivor who is having a creative renaissance in his twilight years. But, facing his own mortality, his regrets follow him everywhere.
A.J. Eaton directed the film, although the more obvious influence in the documentary is Cameron Crowe ("Almost Famous"), who serves as producer and conducts many of the on-camera interviews with Crosby. Crowe has been writing about Crosby since the 1970s (at one point, he produces an old cassette tape of a 1974 interview), and that familiarity may have helped Crosby lower his guard.
The film is ostensibly timed to coincide with Crosby’s latest album "Here If You Listen" and tour, and it’s stunning to hear his singing voice, still as fresh and clear as it was a half-century ago. But the heart of the documentary is Crosby driving up memory lane (in this case, Laurel Canyon Boulevard) to recount his legendary early career. As he visits old haunts and tells stories, it's almost like no time has passed. At one point, Eaton films a window in the house where CSN was first formed — and then cuts to an archival shot of Joni Mitchell leaning out the same window a half-century ago.
Where did it all go wrong? The drugs were a big problem of course, although sobriety hasn’t dulled Crosby’s knack for ticking people off. He alludes to his anger management issues, but the film is frustratingly short on giving us specifics as to what he actually did to sabotage his career and alienate his peers. Roger McGuinn of The Byrds, one of the few musicians who agreed to be interviewed for “Remember My Name” (others show up in archival interviews), talks about having to fire Crosby from the band: "David had become insufferable.” Then we see footage of The Byrds at the Monterey Pop Festival, with Crosby rambling about JFK assassination theories between songs.
“Remember My Name” could have used more of those specific instances of Crosby’s bad behavior, rather than letting him dodge and weave with vague apologies. He does seem genuinely sorrowful about his transgressions, particularly how he treated an old girlfriend, Christine Hinton, who died young in a car accident. But he only lets the viewer in so far. One gets the sense that for Crosby, the documentary is an effort to rehabilitate his reputation, and that he's calculated exactly how much contrition he needs to show to be forgiven.
Yet the film is still engaging because of the life Crosby lived. He tells great stories, of running into John Coltrane in the bathroom at a Chicago blues club, or tussling with Jim Morrison while on acid at the Whiskey a Go Go. (Crosby’s solution to get out of the uncomfortable interaction, he says, was to “teleport to the other side of the room.”)
In the end, music was always easier for him to deal with than other people, and vice versa. Late in the film, Crosby comes home exhausted from the latest tour and falls into bed, his arm draped around his one lifelong love: his guitar.