Across 1,600 miles and five decades, the bittersweet harmonies of an obscure California folk duo from the 1960s resonate strongly with two Lacombe filmmakers — because it reminds them of home.
This emotional connection to Lambert and Nuttycombe’s music led Carmen Cookson-Hills and Tim Ursuliak to make a documentary about the remaining members of the duo. It’s Just One Life: A Portrait by Craig Nuttycombe will be screened on the closing day of the Central Alberta Film Festival on Saturday, Oct. 21. Local indie film nominated for Best Feature Documentary.
Cookson-Hills said the cross-continental film project was conceived by listening to the 2001 reissued Japanese CD of the Lambert and Nuttycombe album.
While he and Ursuliak were deeply invested in 1960s bands – this common interest drew the pair together while both were still in high school in Bentley – they had never heard of this US folk duo, which broke up in 1973.
But the reissued music from these hippy singer/songwriters is so evocative of the pastoral landscape of Central Alberta that it seems like it was written about the Alberta Prairies, said Cookson-Hills. “They’re like California’s answer to Simon and Garfunkel, only their music is more downbeat and country-sounding…. It was a stranger…”
A few years ago, he wrote a fan letter to Craig Nuttycombe, who is now 77 years old and still lives in the Los Angeles area. He became a funny and charming man, who never stopped making music, despite having to work various blue-collar day jobs to pay the bills.
This led to an ongoing pen-pal relationship – and eventually an invitation for the couple to visit him in California, where Alberta filmmakers asked if he would be willing to make a documentary about his extraordinary life journey. .
A music historian might say that Denis Lambert and Craig Nuttycombe, who came together in Los Angeles in 1967, were both blessed and cursed with the public fame of the flower power, the Haight-Ashbury era.
The duo opened for Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and many other legendary bands at festivals from California to Germany. They played at the Filmore West in San Francisco, the Avalon Ballroom and other storied venues, and were the lead act for Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin and other famous comedians at The Ice House in Pasadena.
“They even beat Van Morrison in their prime — people thought they were better,” Ursuliak added.
But so many amazing bands emerged in the late ’60s, early ’70s, that it was easy to get lost in the shuffle – which is what happened with Lambert and Nuttycombe. But there’s more to the duo’s story – as shown in the It’s Just Life.
The film produced by Ursuliak and Cookson-Hills reveals the personal tragedy behind the duo’s breakup, which may have fueled Lambert’s drug addiction, mental health problems, and eventually, his 1997 suicide.
Running one hour and 26 minutes, the film is the longest project Ursuliak, who makes industrial films, and Cookson-Hills, who works at Red Deer Polytechnic, has ever done. But the feature documentary gained traction with screenings at film festivals in South Africa and Romania. It will also air on Nov. 5 in Carmel-by-the-Sea, near where Nuttycombe lives, and next March at Calgary’s Third Action Film Festival.
The filmmakers say they are especially excited about the CAFF screening because it will allow friends and family members to finally see the product they have been working hard on since 2021.
They hope to attract more people to the music of both talented and unknown folk artists. Ever since Cookson-Hills talked to CKUA host Grant Stovel about Lambert and Nuttycombe — “he’d never heard of them,” he recalls — he’s been thrilled to hear more of the duo’s tracks played on the public station’s Alberta radio.
For more information about CAFF’s 2023 film screenings, from October 18-21 at Carnival Cinemas, please visit cafilmfestival.ca.