Larry "L.A." Johnson: Film-maker best known for his work with Neil Young
Tuesday 30 March 2010
Released last summer on Blu-ray, DVD and CD, Neil Young's mammoth 10-disc retrospective, Archives Vol. 1 (1963-1972), drew rave reviews and went on to win a Grammy for Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package, the right accolade for what is undoubtedly "the most ambitious artist collection ever released" as Reprise Records claimed.
The film-maker Larry "L.A." Johnson was one of the prime movers behind the project and helped devise a new and innovative way for Young fans who invested in the Blu-ray edition to access thousands of press cuttings and photographs while simultaneously enjoying the audio, video and film material – with the added bonus of free online updates in perpetuity.
This ground-breaking approach epitomised the work of Johnson, who headed Young's Shakey Pictures company and served as director, editor or producer on many of the singer-songwriter's projects, starting with the Journey Through the Past album and documentary in 1972, and taking in the black comedy Human Highway, co-directed by Dean Stockwell and Young under his Bernard Shakey pseudonym in 1982. Johnson also worked on the concert film Rust Never Sleeps (1979), the Greendale album, film and tour (2003), and Neil Young's Trunk Show, directed by Jonathan Demme (2009).
In a career spanning over four decades, Johnson earned an Academy Award nomination for sound editing on Michael Wadleigh's epochal Woodstock documentary, released in cinemas in 1970. He was also sound editor on Renaldo and Clara, Bob Dylan's surrealist movie of his 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue, and line producer on The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese's film of The Band's farewell concert in 1976. In the Eighties, he directed concert videos for Joni Mitchell, Belinda Carlisle, New Edition and Bobby Brown.
Johnson had a unique talent for capturing the power and excitement of music and translating it to film. In 1993, he devised Lean by Jarre, a performance of the soundtracks Maurice Jarre wrote for the films of David Lean, featuring the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the composer and incorporating film excerpts, which took place at the Barbican in London and was later issued on video.
Born Larry Alderman Johnson in 1947, he was an "army brat" and thus often moved as a child and a teenager, which seemed to prepare him for the itinerant lifestyle of the rock tours he subsequently worked on. He attended Peekskill Military Academy in New York and Rutgers University in New Jersey, where he showed promise as a band leader and drum major.
He met Scorsese, Wadleigh, the cinematographer David Myers and the editor Thelma Schoonmaker and was part of the team capturing the 1969 Woodstock Festival for posterity. Johnson first encountered Young when he appeared at the "3 Days of Peace and Music" event with David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash, even if he didn't feature in the documentary because he thought the filming intrusive (the inclusion of an acoustic version of "Mr. Soul" by Stills and Young from Woodstock in Archives Vol. 1 rather implied that Young revised his opinion).
In 1970, Johnson was involved in filming CSNY during their run of concerts at New York's Fillmore East and used some of the footage in Journey Through the Past. In 1984, he produced the concert video and Laserdisc Solo Trans, filmed by Hal Ashby. Two years later, Johnson directed a barnstorming set by Young and his band Crazy Horse at Cow Palace in San Francisco for a pay-per-view event entitled Live in a Rusted-Out Garage.
He also oversaw Young's concert video Weld (1991), the Jim Jarmusch documentary Year of the Horse (1997), the live video Neil Young: Silver and Gold (2000) and co-produced Young's protest album Living With War (2006). He also co-produced CSNY/Déjà Vu (2008), the film about CSNY's "Freedom of Speech" tour and its political context, directed by Young. Johnson's recent projects included LincVolt, documenting Young's conversion of a 1959 Lincoln Continental into a low-emission, environment-friendly vehicle.
Young paid the film-maker the following tribute: "He never lost the eye and ear of an original artist, one unafraid to listen to himself first. Even more, he also kept his playful spirit and sense of humour, the things that sparked his heart for a lifetime spent doing what he loved best: listening to music and making movies."
Larry Alderman Johnson ("L.A." Johnson), film-maker: born Fort Benning, Georgia 11 June 1947; married Leslie Morris (divorced, one son, one daughter); died Redwood City, California 21 January 2010.
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