San Francisco Sounds: A Place in Time,” a two-part video on MGM+ that ends on August 27, goes into detail about the famous music scene in San Francisco from 1965 to 1969, a time period known as the “Summer of Love.” With the help of insightful artist voice-overs, the film shows how a music scene that held the world’s attention changed, reached its peak, and then went downhill.
Steve Miller, a significant figure from the era and a 2016 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, recalls his entry into the city. At 23, he decided to drive his Volkswagen Bus to San Francisco. He described a vibrant atmosphere centered around the iconic Haight and Ashbury streets. Miller talks about the Sunday afternoon jam sessions, remembering the energy of bands like Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Grateful Dead, and other great artists like Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
The documentary gives a clear picture of a scene where many different kinds of musical abilities were honored. Jefferson Airplane, Santana, and the Grateful Dead, all of whom became famous in their own right, played on the same stage as The Charlatans, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Moby Grape. Beyond the music, there were politically charged theater groups, one led by the soon-to-be-famous Peter Coyote.
The documentary also delves into the powerhouses behind the scenes. Chet Helms and Bill Graham were the era’s top producers, ensuring packed venues with eye-catching, collectible posters and mesmerizing proto-light shows. Graham, especially, is recalled with a mix of reverence and apprehension. He was instrumental in launching bands like Santana and introducing new audiences to legends like Miles Davis and Etta James. Yet, as Miller says, Graham could be “disagreeable to work with.”
Miller also recalls how San Francisco became a global hotspot for music around 1968. Icons like Eric Clapton’s Cream and Jimi Hendrix made their marks on the city, with the latter being a memorable presence due to his electrifying performance style.
But as with all good things, San Francisco’s musical utopia had an expiration date. The documentary charts the transition of this organic gathering to its downfall. The tight-knit community, once characterized by sharing and harmony, started fracturing under the pressures of fame, money, and drugs. Rising crime rates and the eerie presence of the still-unsolved Zodiac killer cast a shadow over the once-luminous scene.
Miller thinks back to that time and remembers how many bands moved north across the Golden Gate Bridge to get away from the growing chaos in the city. Even though Miller’s 1973 record “The Joker” was a big hit, those days in San Francisco still have a strong appeal for him. Even though there were problems, like when he had to live in his Volkswagen when money was tight, Miller calls this time a “renaissance” because it was a time of experimentation, growth, hope, and joy.
“San Francisco Sounds: A Place In Time” is a touching ode to a time in history when music was the beating heart of a city before the weight of its success led to its inevitable end.