It's the Year of the Documentary! Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Mister Rogers and Whitney Houston are just a few getting the big-screen treatment. Now can be added Magic Music. Uhhh…who?
Unless you happened to live in the Boulder, Colorado area in the early 70s, the band’s name may not be familiar. TV writer-producer Lee Aronsohn (Murphy Brown, The Big Bang Theory) never forgot the buoyant acoustic folk-rock songs like "Bring the Morning Down" played on the University of Colorado lawn, which he later sang to his young children. After retiring, Aronsohn set out to track down the band members. Why did Magic Music never attain the stardom for which they seemed destined?
Old photos and animated Micah Brenner illustrations help trace the group's history, while headlines superimposed on newspapers evoke the spirit of the era. Try to resist groaning as the band almost comically makes one bad decision after another. Opening for Cat Stevens, they excitedly take three curtain calls and permanently get the hook. An exec offers them a contract, they need only add a drummer. Not a chance and the guy’s pointed shoes would have nixed the deal anyway. “Should've signed that one,” Will “Wilbur” Luckey genially remarks.
Aronsohn told an audience at a screening that a friend described Magic Music as Crosby, Stills and Tull. Indeed, the beautiful harmonies heard on never-released demo tracks do recall Crosby, Stills & Nash. And George “Tode” Cahill’s flute, considered their "signature sound," that of Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson. All the more remarkable because as the charismatic Tode explains, his first day at a commune a stranger insisted on giving him the instrument—one that he had never before played—saying, “Maybe you’ll need it.”
Conflict, family obligations and unsatisfying gigs in noisy bars all took a toll, and the group broke up in 1976. While Chris “Spoons” Daniels went on to a rewarding full-time career in music, others sometimes wound up taking regular jobs just to survive. The most moving story is that of later
addition Kevin Milburn, aka CW, who plays the tabla, two hand drums(!) Though the former band members got together a few times in recent years to perform and socialize, CW had lost touch long ago.
As Aronsohn filmed the documentary, he got the idea for a reunion concert. Missing “the last piece of the puzzle,” the director travels to Carson City, Nevada, where CW tells a muddled tale of drugs and missing money, and hints at a hard-luck life. The stumbling block to his rejoining the group is a bitter falling out with their third manager. CW agrees to allow him a phone call and when he hears the voice of his long-estranged friend, decades fall away from his face. Magic Music’s exhilarating sold-out concert—and CW’s sweet, clear vocals on “Cedar’s Sigh” are a high point—conjures up a simpler time when all things seemed possible.
Ultimately about the enduring power of music and of friendship, and coming full circle, The Magic Music Movie is the summer’s most joyful film. In a number of theaters around the country throughout August, available digitally September 4. The soundtrack will be released September 14.
George "Tode" Cahill, Will “Wilbur” Luckey, Kevin "CW" Milburn, Chris “Spoons” Daniels, former bass player Bill "Das" Makepeace. Bassist Rob "Poonah" Galloway not pictured.