Echo in the Canyon a Musical Treat

Echo in the Canyon (2019)
Directed by Andrew Slater
Greenwich Entertainment, 82 minutes, PG-13.

I was misty-eyed by the time the credits rolled for Echo in the Canyon. I confess that I mourned for my lost youth, but that’s not the only reason.

Echo in the Canyoncaptures an extraordinary moment (1965-1967) in which dozens of musicians occupied Laurel Canyon and evolved a subculture that was part of Los Angeles yet separate from Lala Land’s skin-deep glitz. Laurel Canyon’s winding roads and steep hillsides made it a vest pocket retreat in which neighbors showed up at each other’s doors, guitars at hand, and “invented” folk rock. It’s certainly open for debate as to whether it was a literal invention, but it’s safe to say the Laurel Canyon sound was unique: jangly electric guitars sharing space with acoustic instruments, three-part harmonies adding depth to folk melodies, and Folk Revival seriousness giving way to a sense of playfulness. I suppose this was destined to happen when the “neighbors” formed such now-iconic groups as The Association, The Beach Boys, Buffalo Springfield, The Byrds, The Mamas and the Papas, and The Mothers of Invention. Call Laurel Canyon LA’s answer to the Bay Area’s hippie scene that gave birth to acid rock and 1967’s Summer of Love.

Echo in the Canyongoes a step beyond a simple retelling of the past. It also appends rehearsal and concert footage from a 2015 (and beyond) project spearheaded by Jakob Dylan. To commemorate the 50thanniversary of Laurel Canyon’s initial flowering, Dylan assembled a new generation of talent­–Fiona Apple, Beck, Jade Castrinos, Norah Jones, Cat Power, Regina Spektor–to recreate the Canyon vibe. Dylan does so in ways that simultaneously evoke the music of the past yet give it small interpretative tweaks that make the golden oldies sound fresh. 

Viewers will instantly notice that Jakob isn’t exactly a chip off the old block. Maybe he’s not a poet laureate, but he’s a much better singer and musician than his old man. He’s also a better human being who lacks his father’s tempestuous ego. There is simpatico energy between Jakob and the musicians with whom he shares the stage, as well as mutual respect for both those who went before him and peers bringing their own ideas to the project.

Normally I find that films that are half documentary and half in the present lose coherence and are merely half good. Add producer to Dylan fils’ virtues. There is a lot of ground to cover yet the film manages to strike a then/now balance in a concise 82 minutes.  

The history part of the film is a mix of stock footage and interviews. Among the talking heads–in both senses of the noun–are legends such as producer Lou Adler, Eric Clapton, David Crosby, Roger McGuinn, Graham Nash, Michelle Phillips, Ringo Starr, John Sebastian, Steve Stills, Brian Wilson, and Tom Petty. Petty’s presence is poignant given that he died in 2017 and the footage on screen is his last recorded interview. Yes, there’s a lot of shared admiration and retelling of old war stories, but mostly the talk is about music. McGuinn, for example, gives a cogent lesson in musical cross-fertilization. He acknowledges the influence of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, but also demonstrates how The Beatles took one of his licks and tweaked it. Ringo appears to say that Sgt. Pepper probably wouldn’t have sounded as it did had The Byrds never recorded, or if Brian Wilson (Beach Boys) had never imagined the Pet Sounds album. 

David Crosby is especially candid and insightful. In the midst of a flurry of speculation about why Buffalo Springfield broke up, Crosby flicks aside all the “creative disagreement” niceties for this tidbit: “I got kicked out of the band because I was an asshole.” Michelle Phillips is equally forthcoming about her promiscuity, and Brian Wilson reveals that he went to four different studios to get the–if you will–correct vibe for the various parts of “Good Vibrations.” As for why those vibrations eventually hummed discordantly and the Canyon scene began to fall apart, again all manner of theories abound: the life cycle of groups, acid rock’s shift to individual virtuosity, infighting…. Once gain Crosby cuts through a lot of pomposity and puts forth a simpler explanation, one involving what happens when you give a bunch of kids millions of dollars to play with. With a twinkle in his eye he notes, “Before you know it it’s bring out the smoke machines and sing the hits.” In other words, creativity and community gave way to the very L.A. commercialism from which they tried to hide in Laurel Canyon.

Things seemed to have gone much smoother for the latter day concerts. Jade is a revelation; she comes off as an enraptured 21stcentury hippie chick–in a good way. Her infectious smile is a perfect counter to Apple’s serious demeanor. It might also surprise that BobDylan gets only an oblique nod. Fair enough; he wasn’t a West Coast guy. Nor are The Doors mentioned, perhaps because they were a rock band, not a folkrock ensemble. Curiously conspicuous by her absence is the Queen of Laurel Canyon: Joni Mitchell. Too mercurial and difficult? 

Nitpickers will find openings. Some have dismissed the film as romantic, others that it’s little more than an exercise in nostalgia. But let me circle back to my moist eyes. Yeah, I wish I was young again, but it also had a lot to do with the fact that the music is just so damn good it hurts. It’s those gorgeous melodies, jangly guitars, textures, hooks, riffs, and ineffable qualities that seep into our DNA. Above all, Laurel Canyoncaptures the hopes of a generation before it was expelled from the Garden. 

Rob Weir

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