Jefferson Airplane was not a great band. Let it be said upfront that their reputation during their heyday was based on a drug-fueled tolerance of aimlessness, and their legacy built on a few songs (mainly “Somebody to Love”, “White Rabbit”, and “Volunteers”) that were hardly indicative of what the band was about. They were, instead, six talented musicians so swept up in the individualism-unto-narcissism of hippie culture that they could barely be bothered to shape their respective whims into a coherent whole when they went traipsing along on yet another endless psychedelic jam. On stage, their songs would drag on and on, going nowhere for the simple fact that no two members of the band seemed to ever be pulling in the same direction. Taken separately, the vocals of Grace Slick and Marty Balin and the instrumental prowess of Jorma Kaukonen, Spencer Dryden, Jack Casady, and Paul Kantner were much more impressive than when taken as a whole. Jefferson Airplane, in short, should’ve been better than they were.
None of this means that they aren’t interesting, and the Airplane certainly was that. Even if all the books ever written about rock music were wiped out tomorrow, the information contained therein could be reproduced simply by taking notes on Jefferson Airplane’s Behind the Music episode. They epitomized every era they lived through, indulging in massive amounts of drugs and sex when that was the thing to do, becoming bloated and self-indulgent when it was in fashion, turning into a downright embarrassment at the exact time their ‘60s cohorts were doing the same (or dying like Keith Moon and John Bonham), and having mortifying comebacks and reunions when it became safe to be nostalgic about them.
Watching their new documentary, Fly Jefferson Airplane, is to realize how inextricable the band is from our collective memory of hippie rock and ‘60s culture. Slick reminds us that strong, liberated women were starting to dot the landscape, songs like “Volunteers” encapsulate the wide-eyed political naïvete that rang true only to stoned flower children, and “White Rabbit” serves as yet another reminder of the enduring appeal of drugs. And let us never forget the garbled mysticism of the day, combining Beat-derived faux-Buddhism with an escapist idealism and garden-variety denial about the hard facts of human existence. Yes, Jefferson Airplane waded into those waters as well, going in all the way, as they did with most everything else.
If fans of the band still exist (and there is some question about this - the Grateful Dead’s followers remain legion, and even Quicksilver Messenger Service and poor Moby Grape have their hipster advocates, but who still touts San Francisco’s first psychedelic superstars?), then they should be thrilled by Fly Jefferson Airplane. Such a feeling won’t be a result of the structural brilliance of the documentary since, er, it has none. Neither will the brief interview segments predictably preceding each performance set viewers’ minds alight with fresh insights on the group. Fly Jefferson Airplane makes so little effort to tell an interesting story about its subject, in fact, that it would be unforgivable except for its redemption as an absolute treasure chest of performance footage of the band, all of which is presented in its entirety.
Hardly a review can be written about a music documentary without the critic praising the filmmakers for letting performances play all the way through or attacking it for cutting them short, but Fly Jefferson Airplane is so steadfast in its dedication to its 13 uncut songs that it’s well worth the cliché to award the film the credit it’s due. Anyone who finds the group long-winded won’t watch anyway, and fans hankering for more storytelling can get their fix with the adequate bonus interviews. It doesn’t add up to a masterpiece, exactly, but neither did the band itself, so the logic of appropriate expectations deems this effort perfectly sufficient.