NEW YORK — Janis Joplin's first rehearsal with the rock band Big Brother & The Holding Company was apparently a loud affair. So loud it was alarming.
Bassist Peter Albin recalls the band raising the roof off one day in the 1960s when their playing was interrupted by a knock at the door. Two San Francisco police officers were investigating reports of a woman screaming.
“Oh, that's just Janis. It's OK,” came the reply.
That fun nugget — as well as rare footage of the actual rehearsal — enliven “San Francisco Sounds: A Place in Time,” a two-part documentary on MGM+ that concludes Sunday. The first part dropped Aug. 20.
The late Joplin is joined by an astonishing number of great artists who came to define the city — the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Sly and the Family Stone, The Great Society, Steve Miller, Carlos Santana, Moby Grape, and Country Joe & The Fish, all mixing rock, folk and the blues.
Viewers get a street-level view of the rise of the San Francisco dream — artistic freedom, community and authenticity — and its fall, thanks to hard drugs, commercialism and increasingly hard edges. The time period is 1965 to 1975, short but sweet.
“It’s not just the music,” says co-director Anoosh Tertzakian. “Everybody was trying to break the rules of whatever their medium was, and I think it’s in that breaking the rules that they found something new. The music was what was keeping the pulse together.”
The docuseries explores how the Grateful Dead got some of their iconic logos, how city music venues Avalon Ballroom and The Fillmore began, how the seminal Jefferson Airplane song “White Rabbit” came about and how the deaths at the Altamont show soured the hippie mood.
Tertzakian and filmmaker Alison Ellwood, who last teamed up to capture the music of the Los Angeles neighborhood Laurel Canyon, turned their attention north and found a place “on the edge of the earth.”
“It was like every misfit from anywhere in this country who rattled loose, ended up in San Francisco,” the series quotes Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead as saying.
The main guides are disc jockey Dusty Street, poster artist Victor Moscoso, light show artist Bill Ham and Rolling Stone magazine journalist Ben Fong-Torres. The musicians are captured in audio interviews that play over archival footage — a technique Ellwood and Tertzakian used in “Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time,” in 2020.
“It’s obviously a place that so many people have focused on and they really focus on the star quality of the musicians,” says Tertzakian. “And I think that was something that we really wanted to minimize in order to bring it back to the source.”
That technique both captures the spark of creativity and bypasses the grave. “We can’t set Grace Slick down and then counter it with Janis Joplin sitting down and doing an interview. So that’s another reason, just to keep everyone young, of the time of the moment,” says Ellwood.
An astonishing amount of footage and interviews were used, borrowed from reporters, universities, archive houses and personal collections. Susan Joy Balin, wife of Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin, handed over her own footage of the time, as did Jerry Slick, Grace’s ex-husband.
“We were saying, ‘Just give us whatever you have and let’s play around with it,’” says Tertzakian. “That was both super fun and also a challenge because the amount of material we had, we had to really pick and choose how to use it and in a relatively short time frame.”
The hippie decline — charted in the second half — is heartbreaking, as record companies start flooding the music scene with money, and heroin starts to displace the psychedelics, with disastrous consequences.
“Hordes of people invaded without the artistic vision and plan to come there in the first place. They just showed up with no plan and the city couldn’t sustain it,” says Ellwood.
But Tertzakian believes the San Francisco dream lives on. “For every one of these people, they lost something, but they kept it with them and they continued as they did their own art or lived their lives,” she says. “I feel like to a certain degree it trickled out.”
After Laurel Canyon and San Francisco, the filmmakers have yet to decide on the subject of their third music-related docuseries. Perhaps Greenwich Village or Nashville or the grunge scene.
“We’ve been talking about lots of different things, but we’ll see,” says Ellwood.