Echo in the Canyon

“Echo in the Canyon” is director Andrew Slater’s documentary on the game-changing music movement in the mid-late 1960’s that took place in Laurel Canyon, California. The history of that remarkable time is presented from a bevy of music legends, including David Crosby, Ringo Starr, producer Lou Adler, Michelle Phillips, Jackson Browne and Eric Clapton (to name just a few). Many of the subjects are interviewed during their downtime in studio sessions and candidly recall the defining moments of their careers and the impact their music made on the world.

The film is hosted, in a way, by Jakob Dylan, who is enigmatic but good humored and clearly in awe of the many icons he speaks with. During a playful bit, an interviewee cites “Dylan” (as in Bob, Jakob’s father) as a major influence, to which Jakob replies, “you’re going to have to be more specific.”

The framing device is the 2015 concert at the Orpheum Theater, which was spearheaded by Dylan and a Capitol Records veteran to celebrate the collection of greatest hits that emerged during the 1960’s. Among the guests who join Dylan onstage (and, in some cases, only in the recording studio)  include Beck, Regina Spektor, Cat Power, Norah Jones (who performs a striking duet with Dylan on “Never My Love”) and Fiona Apple (whose duet with Dylan on “In My Room” is a killer). While the concert event appears to have been the source from which the documentary was spun off of, neither the concert footage nor Dylan monopolize the focus.

It begins with Dylan and the late, great Tom Petty (to whom the documentary is dedicated) walking through a music store, discussing amps and pondering the correct way to pronounce “Rickenbacker.” From there, Slater’s film takes off, darting around various Laurel Canyon locations, then and now, and pin pointing the specific individuals and bands whose contribution to music resulted in some of the greatest songs of the 20th century.

Among the topics covered: the incredible impact of The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds,” how The Byrds were once The Beatles’ favorite band, the creative genius of Buffalo Springfield, the inspiration of Jacques Demy’s “Model Shop” (brief clips of the Gary Lockwood-starring film are shown) and a discussion of how trans-Atlantic cross-breeding of different musical styles and genres created the multifaceted sounds of the decade.

Among the best anecdotes are Petty’s declaration that Brian Wilson is better than Mozart and Phillips’ recollection of the sexual tension within the Mamas and the Papas, leading to the creation of the song “Go Where You Wanna Go.”

Then there’s Brian Wilson himself, who crashes a recording session and tells some of his freewheeling tales of sonic creativity. Needless to say, if you’re a fan of classic rock and roll and smile when you read the names of any of the artists above, this documentary will resonate deeply.

There are no groundbreaking confessions from any of the musicians and it starts to sag near the end. While it doesn’t end with a hoped-for bang and just kind of fades out, “Echo in the Canyon” is akin to visiting an old friend, remembering the great old days and getting lost in a haze of blissful memories. It’s in the same company as other recent, thoroughly enjoyable music docs like “20 Feet From Stardom” and “The Wrecking Crew.” Slater’s dreamy, lively and always entertaining look back at the creation of the soundtracks to our lives has a real kick and comes from a place of unabashed joy.

Four Stars

-originally published in Maui Time Weekly