Unrequited Love

Andrew Hultkrans on Love Story

Chris Hall and Mike Kerry, Love Story, 2006, still from a color film, 110 minutes.

“THAT'S MY GIFT: VARIETY,” says Arthur Lee, leader of the genre-defying 1960s Angeleno band Love, commenting on his childhood sing-alongs to the disparate artists in his mother’s record collection. Interviewed in 2005 and 2006 by a pair of UK filmmakers for the first and perhaps only documentary on the legendary group (now that both Lee and his fellow songwriter Bryan MacLean have passed away), Lee seems tamped down—a lifetime of drug use and erratic behavior, plus nearly six years in prison, will do that—but proud of the ever-expanding cult of devotees that Love has attracted since the releases of its first three records, particularly 1967’s Forever Changes.

To trace the footsteps of Lee, indisputably the first black psychedelic musician, and his boundary-smashing, interracial, psych-folk-Latin-rock band, filmmakers Chris Hall and Mike Kerry drive with him from Dorsey High School in Los Angeles, where he excelled at basketball and track, to the Capitol Records building, where he sold his first R&B songs as a teen. They visit “The Castle”—the fabled Los Feliz mansion formerly owned by Bela Lugosi, where Love lived during the making of their second LP, Da Capo (1966)—allowing Arthur to reminisce while dissing the decor chosen by its current residents. With lead guitarist Johnny Echols, the filmmakers venture into the theater on Cosmo’s Alley where, in its heyday as Bido Lito’s, Love ruled the Sunset Strip with a nightly residency, inspiring the nascent Doors, the Rolling Stones, and countless other stars and freaks. They check in with MacLean, drummers Michael Stuart-Ware and Alban “Snoopy” Pfisterer (now an amusingly self-deprecating posthippie nerd), Elektra Records CEO Jac Holzman, record producer Bruce Botnick, the Doors’ John Densmore, and other friends and fans.

Love Story is a fine introduction to the bittersweet career of an utterly unique band—newcomers will be piqued to dig deeper—and it’s likely nothing better will be made. But Hall and Kerry fail to coax Arthur into revealing more about the conception of Forever Changes—the closest analogue to a dense modernist novel that rock has ever produced—and they obscure some of the darker shades of Love’s image. Absent is any reference to the band’s erstwhile rhythm guitarist, Bobby Beausoleil, who became the first murderer in the Manson Family. And while the documentary briefly discusses the band members’ heroin use, it largely elides Love’s thuggish, downbeat reputation among fellow musicians: One of Janis Joplin’s sidemen even called the band Hate. Arthur was both a sweet soul and a tough, streetwise cat; the Smile-era Brian Wilson would have dubbed him a “mind gangster.” The paranoia and drug-fueled isolation that characterized Forever Changes and the demise of Love’s original lineup also deserve further exploration. Unfortunately, the genuinely redemptive vibe of Arthur’s postprison comeback, during which he is filmed, derails the filmmakers from presenting Love’s story in all its rich, contrasting colors.

Love Story is available now from Start Productions.