Film Review: 40 Years in the Making: The Magic Music Movie

What might be dismissed aa a niche documentary about the producer's favorite obscure band as a youth instead becomes an ode to human connection, to the invisible bonds that can transcend time, space and even hate.
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Baby-boomer nostalgia is a potent force, yet even that doesn't explain the impetus behind this documentary about an obscure local band in 1970s Boulder, Colorado that had never recorded a record and had dispersed to the winds mid-decade. Yet neither nostalgia nor cool obscurity has much to do with what makes this heartfelt, scrupulously well-done film as moving and effective as it is. 40 Years in the Making: The Magic Music Movie is instead a paean to those human connections that almost mystically endure despite time, despite geography, despite animosities, despite losing touch, despite everything until the pull of an invisible, inexplicable, what one person here calls a spiritual connection can bond people as if by, well, magic.

Retracing and eventually reuniting the back-to-the-land band Magic Music that held sway when he was a student at the University of Colorado Boulder, retired TV writer-producer Lee Aronsohn—co-creator of the hit "Two and a Half Men," executive producer of the even bigger hit "The Big Bang Theory"—gives us something far more than a rich man's indulgence. Anyone with enough money could have tracked down the members and offered his favorite old band a princely sum to perform a one-night-only show, as Magic Music did in Boulder on Nov. 22, 2015. But wanting to share such devotion enough to go through the considerable time, expense and effort of a slickly produced feature documentary—that takes it to a level where it's not just about you or about the band anymore but something greater.

Magic Music's story is one of self-sabotage and missed opportunities—a kind of VH1 "Behind the Music" if that one big break had never happened and talented musicians, with harmonies as sweet as those of Crosby, Stills Nash & Young, had instead became couriers and carpenters and music teachers. The folk-rock band began forming when flutist George "Tode" Cahill met a girl at Woodstock and went with her to live in a commune near Boulder. Soon he and guitarist Lynn "Flatbush" Power were performing impromptu at the college's student union and on the grassy campus, and met fellow guitarist Will "Wilbur" Luckey and bassist Rob "Poonah" Galloway. Avatars of the hippie ideal, they soon were all living in a school bus in the nearby Eldorado Canyon—school buses being found cheaply in junkyards and auto pounds—with wood stoves and groupies.

Not having a phone, they only learned by chance that a friendly local had booked them to open for The Youngbloods at the college's concert hall. They killed, leading to a manager taking them on and getting them a contract in Nashville—which they turned down for quirky reasons including reluctance to add drums to the group. This became their modus operandi—losing a shot at Capitol Records because of one member's refusal to wear shoes, losing a potential agent in New York when they got stoned before a tryout and put on a lackluster gig, and so on. The reason the band gives for blowing a chance to tour with Cat Stevens, after successfully opening for him at Denver Auditorium, might have prompted the producers to seek out Stevens' side of the story, but that may be the only trip-up in this well-done and emotionally moving film.

A couple of members left, leading to what Aronsohn considers the classic quintet of Cahill, Luckey, bassist Bill "Das" Makepeace, guitarist Chris "Spoons" Daniels, and Kevin "CW" Milburn, who played the tabla, a sort of cross between a bongo and a conga drum. But tensions were exacerbated by a lack of success—they by now played throughout the Midwest, but more and more were performing in noisy clubs rather than concert venues—and in August 1976 they broke up.

Their subsequent fortunes and misfortunes are the poignant stuff of everyday life, and the film traces what became of the band members. Every few years, their final manager, Greg "Sloth" Sparre, would arrange a "family reunion," so the guys weren't totally incommunicado except for the mysterious Milburn. But Aronsohn, who began this project in the spring of 2015, persevered until most of them agreed to put on one more show.

By this point, the documentary has long ceased to be just about the band but about something eternal. Yes, time can heal wounds both real and perceived. But with even more time, there's more than healing. After enough time you have the perspective to look back on certain youthful friends and realize you have something in common with them as with virtually no one else: You survived. The fires you both experienced didn't burn you to death—and almost no one else knows what it was like to survive those particular fires. There is magic in this film's ode to growing old and being with the people who knew us young.