Echo in the Canyon (review)


Music didn’t begin in Laurel Canyon in 1965, but this film makes a strong case that pop music grew a new branch.  I was looking forward to this film, and what I saw was unlike what I expected.  Usually, I read up on films before I see them, but I wanted to experience Echo in the Canyon like a new day, wide open and full in the face.

Many of the subjects in the film.

The music of the 1960s, for me, really came from England and from Los Angeles.  The film focuses on the evolution of pop music in L.A., principally in the winding area of Laurel Canyon.  The Beatles had landed in America in 1964 and America was still vibrating.  Millions of band instruments were sold, every kid wanted to be in a rock and roll band.  L.A. was a magnet for bands, and with them came a rather interesting folk influence.

David Crosby, in his cape-wearing days, and today.

The Beach Boys were already in Southern California, but groups like The Byrds, The Mamas & the Papas and Buffalo Springfield found their way there.  All had a folk background, unusual guitar chords and interlocking vocal harmonies.  The difference was the electric guitar.  Bob Dylan had gone electric and the world jumped out of its groove.  Roger McGuinn plugged in his 12-string guitar and pop music had a new sound.  The Byrds brought folk music into pop, courtesy of Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan.  Much of the film focuses on The Bryds’ influence on the sound and the poetry popular music.  As David Crosby is quoted as saying, you now heard poetic lyrics on AM radio.

Three of the legendary recording studios where Laurel Canyon residents worked.

The Beach Boys had already given us quirky pop melodies and rich harmonies, but their their lyrics until Pet Sounds were the usual boy-girl stuff.  The new songs of Buffalo Springfield, with “For What It’s Worth” and “Expecting to Fly” challenged listeners, as did The Mamas & the Papas “California Dreamin.'”

Michelle Phillips yesterday and today.

Echo in the Canyon focuses on the 1965-1967 period, before psychedelic, progressive-rock, hard rock and acid-rock emerged.  It was also before the rise of the singer-songwriter of the early 1970s, many of whom came out of the same geographic area.  Interviewed for the film were Jackson Browne, Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Stephen Stills, Eric Clapton, Michelle Phillips, Brian Wilson, Ringo Starr, Tom Petty, Lou Adler and John Sebastian.

Eric Clapton, producer Lou Adler in the day, Ringo Starr.

All were there during that period, although Petty arrived later, Starr and Clapton were visitors during those years.  Starr recounts a time he and George Harrison were visiting and arrived at David Crosby’s house where he and guests were swimming nude, but quickly put on clothes.  Starr didn’t think that was in keeping with the hippy spirit.  Clapton told the story of a party he was at when the police arrived over a noise complaint and then made arrests over some pot.  Stills was there and jumped out a window while Clapton when to jail.

Jakob Dylan
Jakob Dylan performs on stage after screening of “Echo in the Canyon” at Cinerama Dome on Thursday, May 23, 2019, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

This is not a traditional documentary, it is a mixture of telling the story through film and interviews with those listed above, and new performances of many of their songs by Jakob Dylan, Beck, Fiona Apple, Nora Jones, Regina Spektor and Cat Powers.  The performances are close to the originals but not replicas.  Dylan is the main interviewer and narrates to provide continuity and history.  He visits some of the recording studios and local landmarks.

Stephen Stills, for what it’s worth.

Strangely, Carole King is only mentioned in passing, Joni Mitchell not at all, and others well-known at the time left out of the mix.  Maybe they weren’t officially in the 1965-1967 period, but they were hugely influential and part of the Laurel Canyon mystique.

Echo in the Canyon is fine in its limited view, but it’s focus was too narrow. I like The Byrd’s, but too much time was devoted to their influence, leaving out others who deserved to be in the story. And, I would rather have heard the original songs instead of musical interpretations. I get the timelessness of the songs, but too much of the film’s 82 minutes was devoted to new performances.

Brian Wilson recalling some Pet Sounds melodies.

Laurel Canyon has been memorialized in song and culture as this idyllic, hippie haven, where music “cross-pollinated” as Stephen Stills said in the film. Unfortunately, you never really get more than a topical explanation of that world.

Tom Petty demonstrating the Rickenbacker sound.

A bonus was Tom Petty’s musical remembrances. I enjoyed his inclusion in the film, of those who infused the Laurel Canyon vibe, it was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. It is hard to believe he has been gone for two years.

Echo in the Canyon is a fine slice in time, a glimpse of a special place and time.  As many of the participants are Medicare age, the memories are delicious, and the music still knocks your socks off.  It only takes a few ringing notes of Roger McGuinn’s 12-string Rickenbacker.



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