Director Lee Aronsohn on His Magic Music Documentary

For most of his professional career, writer/director Lee Aronsohn was most known as a veteran sitcom writer working on most notable shows as The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men, Murphy Brown, and even The Love Boat. But before becoming a writer, Aronsohn was a college student hoping to avoid the draft at the tail end of the Viet Nam war. The remnants of the hippie generation were coming down off its high of Woodstock and migrated to Boulder, Colorado. While attending Boulder University, Aronsohn became seduced by the magic of the campus folk band Magic Music. Hugely popular in Colorado and destined for greatness. A greatness that never came.

Thirty-six years later and on the retirement end of writing, Aronsohn did what most first time documentarians do, which is answer the simple question: What happened to Magic Music? Film Threat spoke to Aronsohn about 40 Years in the Making: The Magic Music Movie, which is in theaters in New York and Los Angeles before a wide national release.

Could you give me the basic logline of your film, 40 Years in the Making: The Magic Music Movie?
Lee Aronsohn: It’s about a great band, Magic Music, that never made a record, broke up in 1976 and disappeared. I was a fan of Magic Music when I was in college, and I decided to find out whatever happened to them.

The Magic Music was an active band from 1970 to 1976. And so they started at the tail end, Boulder, Colorado is kind of where the Woodstock generation went after Woodstock. And so Magic Music was part of that, and they butted up against the disco, heavy metal era, which made them obsolete.

“…the generation after Woodstock and Magic Music was part of that, and they butted up against the disco, heavy metal…”

Is this a story of nostalgia as well as posterity?
There’s some nostalgia. It’s amazing that we’ve reached the point where it’s possible to feel nostalgia for the Nixon era and Watergate. But, there’s a lot of parallels between what was going on then, and what we face now. I think the film tells a story of a band and some individuals, but it’s also a lot about our generation, and how did we get from there to here. As the Grateful Dead said, it’s a long strange trip.

What was the spark that got this project moving forward?
Well, I’d always thought about them, because they never made a record.  I remembered their music; I remembered their songs. So, I would say them to myself, or I’d sing them to my kids when they were babies, at least a couple of them that I remembered, or the parts that I remembered.

In the back of my head, I wondered whatever happened to these guys. And after I retired from television, and I was looking for something else to put my energy into, something that would have some meaning for me. It occurred to me that this is a story nobody else is going to tell because nobody else has ever heard of them.

A lot of documentaries are being made more for posterity’s sake, to keep that memory, or to lock their place in history.
Certainly I wasn’t doing it because I thought I was going to make any money off of it. I did it for their posterity and for mine too. I won’t mind if I get hit by a bus tomorrow. I wouldn’t mind at all if this is the last thing that I made.

“…this is a story nobody else is going to tell because nobody else has ever heard of them.”

I guess the two things I’ve picked up from your film. One is, Boulder is a very beautiful city. The other is, just how amazing Magic Music is. It dawned on me while watching it that there’s some really good music in the background, and of course, it has to be this band. This is one of those bands that should have, they should have been famous. They should’ve been popular. They should have had a record deal. What do you think was it that kept them from finding stardom?
Yes, it does. I think part of it was; they’re very protective of their music. They believed in the ideals of the era that they were living. They didn’t trust record people. They thought it was more important to make their music than it was to become famous. At least the majority of them. And then the moment passed.

I think they always felt like; we’re going to hold out until we can do it our way. We’re going to hold out and get a better deal, we’re going to hold out … and they held that so long that the moment passed and the culture.

It also seemed like, this is a band that just met each other on the campus quad and started jamming together. It also felt like that maybe they had different ideas of what their destiny would be, and they never could get it together.
I think that’s true. If you look at their individual lives after Magic Music, almost all of them tried one or two other bands, but only one of them stuck and stayed in the music business. One of them became a carpenter, and one of them is a messenger, and one of them is just retired. They’ve taken lots of different journeys because they all still hold the music dear to their hearts. It was never about business for them.

Let’s talk about the film as a first-time documentarian at this point. What did you have to do to get the project started, to take an obscure band and to devote an entire film to it?
I kind of stumbled my way through it. I ordered a couple of books on Amazon about documentaries. But basically, it was really a matter of just getting cameras and pointing them and then trying to figure out how to cut all the footage together.

“…they’re very protective of their music. They believed in the ideals of the era that they were living.”

Not only that, you’re using these moving images to bring life to these archival photos. I mean, was that a hard thing to get financed, to get done?
Well, I wasn’t dealing with outside financing, so that was not an issue for me. I’m fortunate enough that I had the means to be able to do something like this for once. But the fact was I was working with a limitation that there was no archival video, no archival film with the band. So either it was going to be just a movie of talking heads, or I had to do something else to make it interesting, and that’s when he decided on the illustrations and animating some of the old photos.

And I found this guy in Russia who takes these old photos and animates them, makes them look almost like, old film footage. I had him do a few of those, and then took the illustrations that we had made and got them digitally animated a little bit. I mean, it was pretty limited animation, to bring the movie alive.

So now that you’re getting stuff together, and there’s a point at which you try to get everyone together for a reunion concert, as well as even before then track everyone down and try to rebuild some connections. Were you gambling a lot at that point?
Well, I was just going along, going with the flow. When I started, I had three of them. I had three of the band members who were involved in the 2013 album. If you’ve seen the film, tell the story about the album they made with studio musicians, and they dropped both original bass players, who have resentments about it. So they were in LA working on the album, and that’s where I started with the interviews with them. Then getting Poonah the bass player, to come with them in Boulder to Eldorado Canyon in Allen’s park and to play with them on campus like they used to. And then to figure out what happened to CW, and if there was any way to get him back into the fold. And once I realized that it was possible, that’s when we knew we could do a concert.

Was that, I guess if those things didn’t happen, what do you think would have happened with your documentary?
It would have been a shorter film, and it would have been a less expensive film, and it probably would have gone straight to digital. I still would have made it, because I think the story needed to be, it didn’t need to be told, but I wanted to tell the story, and I wanted the music to be heard.

They had all these tracks that they recorded in the ’70s, they never released, and they’re beautiful. So one of the great things about this whole project is, The Orchard is also releasing a soundtrack album, and it’s all vintage tracks that nobody has ever heard.

How’d you find those?
The band. Das one of the bass players had just hidden them over the years.

“…all vintage tracks that nobody has ever heard…the bass players had just hidden them…”

They were hiding in the closet somewhere in the back.
But I think all of them knew that the music had some value. If not commercial value, certainly just intrinsic value. So they took care of it. They’ve always been protective of their legacy, even though it’s been a very limited legacy. But within the Boulder community, within the community of the people who heard them back then, people came out, and we sold out that reunion concert in Boulder. People came out of the mountains; people came out of the woodwork to see them again.

I mean, I can’t stress how amazing this music is. I mean, I just get these documentaries and many music ones, and to kind of ran off the bat, just kind of start off strong and say, folk music is just, I’m just a little bit too old for folk music, but it’s that rediscovering especially when Mighty Wind came out.
I loved the Mighty Wind.

I mean that was a parody this is the real thing.
That’s true. I think they’re kind of that they have folk roots, but they also have, I call them Crosby, Stills, and Tull because they’ve got, the harmonies and melodies of Crosby, Stills and Nash, and but that rock and flute, Tode’s flute, it’s just amazing. And it’s like nothing else.

You kind of think if they went the CCR route, they’d probably wouldn’t be as happy today, if they had gotten sucked into the record business scam.
I think that’s the way they look at it is that things turned out the way they were supposed to turn out. And, they probably, a lot of them wouldn’t be alive today if they had taken a record deal and come to Los Angeles and go on that route.

So what theme in the documentary are you most proud to have pulled out?
Theme of connection. How connections endure over the years. Even when you’re physically separated, and even when you’re separated by time. These guys, and the people around them, they share a connection that hasn’t gone away. That’s very special. And I think that’s what everybody yearns for. The lyric of Colorado Rockies that opens the movie is, they’re just looking to be found. And I think we all are; we’re all just looking to be found.

“These guys, and the people around them, they share a connection that hasn’t gone away…”

And it was CW that had the greatest rift with the band, and there is a redemption story there as well.
Right. CW was the one who was probably at the time; the most focused on the band’s commercial success. He always thought there was going to be a big break for him, and he ended up in the most precarious position in life. But when you watch him sing in the concert, when he hits that final note, you see such joy on his face that I don’t think it’s been there in years.

Forgiveness and redemption. What is the biggest lesson you learned specifically about this film that you could pass on?
Don’t shoot 100 hours.

You had way too much stuff.
Well, what I learned is that, if you can have a plan, it’s better to have a plan. It would’ve been so much easier if I’d known what the structure was going to be of the film when I was shooting it, but I didn’t because some of the stuff hadn’t happened yet. So sometimes you have to trust your gut. And that’s what I did. I mean, there were times during the shooting when I’d say, if you’ve got this is great, I’m glad we got this, but I have no idea what this movie is going to be yet.

And it panicked me sometimes, and I just chose to have faith that eventually likes the sculpture that looks at a block of granite and just starts chipping away everything that doesn’t look like the beautiful woman, that I would find something in there, and I believe I did.

So, do you think that’s a lesson, or do you think maybe you do need to have all that access footage to see where the story takes you?
I think I could’ve planned better. I do know that in retrospect because I didn’t know the first thing about what I was doing. I shot the first set of interviews I was asking a lot of the wrong questions. I had to find out the story as I was interviewing. I was piecing that story together, as opposed to knowing in my head what I wanted to hit in the interview. Because as it turned out, I did know four, five, six interviews with each one of these guys over the course of filming, and at the end which was, almost a year and a half after we began, and I already did some editing. I had to go back, and I had to get them to say certain lines to plug holes that I knew was there.

“…what I learned is that…it’s better to have a plan. It would’ve been so much easier…”

Filling gaps basically.
Yes, and that’s why I’m in it too, because there are just gaps that I didn’t really want to be in the movie, but it needed a connective tissue, and it’s because it wasn’t until later that I figured out, what structure I wanted. When I started, I didn’t know CW was even a possibility. I didn’t know he was alive.

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