Echo in the Canyon. With Jakob Dylan, Tom Petty, Stephen Stills, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, David Crosby, Roger McGuinn, Lou Adler, John Sebastian, Jackson Browne, Fiona Apple, Beck, Regina Spektor, Graham Nash, Cat Power, Michelle Phillips, Norah Jones, Jade Castrinos. Directed by Andrew Slater. 82 minutes; PG-13. Grade: B+
Sure, “Echo in the Canyon” is a straight-up dose of nostalgia buzz, and potentially not of enormous interest to those under 35 or so. But anyone, regardless of their age, who is fascinated by the personal stories behind pop-music history will be charmed by the film, a part documentary, part concert affair “hosted” by Jakob Dylan (of the Wallflowers, and son of Bob), who also performs in the film.
The story is fairly narrowly focused on the years 1965 through 1967, when folk knocked knees with rock ‘n’ roll to create a new sound. And many of the originators of that new pop music — nominally focused on the artsy and the poetic rather than silly love songs, as the typically unrestrained David Crosby points out — congregated in the woodsy Laurel Canyon area of Los Angeles.
“Echo,” directed by newcomer Andrew Slater, is packed with vintage clips of performances by Buffalo Springfield, the Mamas and the Papas, and the Beach Boys, and recent interviews with members of some the above and others: Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash (but why not Neil Young?), Roger McGuinn, Michelle Phillips, Jackson Browne, Brian Wilson, John Sebastian, Ringo Starr, and Eric Clapton.
In what feels like the most emotional component of the film, there are several sequences with the late Florida-bred Tom Petty, interviewed at a vintage guitar store. “This is a folk-rock special,” Petty says, as he plays a few chiming, ringing chords on a 12-string electric Rickenbacker (feels unimaginable that Petty wouldn’t live to see the film’s release).
McGuinn, chatty as ever, effectively describes how the Beatles, who initially drew from skiffle and other Brit folk forms, played the kind of rock ‘n’ roll that inspired the Byrds’ electric folk-rock, which was initially dissed by folk audiences in New York City and on the West Coast. And, of course, as the stories go, the Beatles’ “Rubber Soul” influenced the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds,” which in turn helped spark the Beatles’ “Sgt Pepper’s.”
Crosby relates the story of how he was kicked out of the Byrds — his bad attitude, not the band’s decision to keep his risque song “Triad” off their album “The Notorious Byrd Brothers,” he says — and Stills sheepishly recounts the time he jumped through a bathroom window to escape from the police when they raided a party at his house; other celebrity guests were arrested on marijuana charges and carted off to jail. Phillips talks about how her free-love lifestyle led husband John Phillips to fire her from the Mamas and the Papas.
The film also is spiked with fun performances of those old hits by a younger generation of artists, including Dylan, Cat Power, Norah Jones, Beck, Fiona Apple, and Regina Spektor. Thus we get new versions of “In My Room,” “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” “Questions,” “Go Where You Wanna Go” and “Never My Love” that are largely faithful to the originals, rather than reinventions. Some of the performances are live in the studio, and others are taken from a 2015 concert at LA’s Orpheum Theatre.
What’s not to like? Well, to be honest, as much fun as Slater’s film is, particularly for someone like me who clearly remembers at least 75% of the music (I was 4 to 6 years old during the film’s target years), “Echo in the Canyon” sometimes feels like it could double as a feature-length commercial for the soundtrack album.
Also, the multiple clips of “Model Shop,” a mostly forgotten 1969 film said to represent the SoCal vibe of the time, add little to the proceedings. I would have liked to have heard some of the artists’ opinions on why they think this particular body of music — made by a group of singers, songwriters and instrumentalists who practically lived in each other’s homes for a period of time — resonated so strongly with the public.
And there are no (or only minor) references to several major artists who were central or tangential to the scene, including Joni Mitchell, Carole King, the Eagles, J.D. Souther, Linda Ronstadt, and Jim Morrison.
Still, “Echo in the Canyon” works well as a broadly entertaining record of a long-vanished, highly creative artistic flourishing resulting in music that continues to resonate. Highly recommended for music lovers and pop-culture fans.