Travis Leamons // Film Critic
ECHO IN THE CANYON
Rated PG-13, 82 minutes.
Director: Andrew Slater
Cast: Jakob Dylan, Tom Petty, Brian Wilson, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Stephen Stills, Michelle Phillips, David Crosby, Jackson Browne, Fiona Apple, Beck, Norah Jones, Regina Spektor, Cat Power, Jade Castrinos, and Lou Adler
You might be able to get that rocky mountain high in Colorado; but for some good vibrations, Laurel Canyon is the place to be. Or at least it was.
In the 1960s, the Los Angeles neighborhood became the nexus for counterculture as folk and rock had a musical fling, and the union gave birth to radio hits that became “flower power” to a generation of baby boomers. The neighborhood gave us the Beach Boys, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, the Mamas & The Papas — all of whom are featured in the musical documentary ECHO IN THE CANYON.
Laurel Canyon also gave inspiration to traveling troubadour Bob Dylan to make the switch from acoustic to electric. In that respect, it makes sense that Dylan’s son, Jakob, would be our tour guide as we explore the music scene beginning in 1965, one year before the Beach Boys released PET SOUNDS. That album was a musical explosion that echoed through the Hollywood Hills, that left the leaves brown, the skies grey, but what a time to be dreaming in California.
For nearly a decade, the Laurel Canyon music scene was on fire. The neighborhood was a musical commune for a new generation of poets and musicians, creating and collaborating this new sound. As Michelle Phillips (of the Mamas & the Papas) recounts in the documentary, she went to the home of Brian Wilson (of the Beach Boys) and was puzzled by the mounds of sand in the living room where only his Steinway and piano bench sat. When she asked Marilyn Rovell (Brian’s wife at the time) what this was all about, Marilyn acknowledged it was crazy, but that he was writing some great songs.
That’s a fun anecdote. Had the documentary been interposing legendary musicians sharing stories from their time living and making songs in the Hollywood Hills to current artists sharing how that music inspired their own, then ECHO IN THE CANYON would have made for excellent viewing.
Wait. That is what the documentary is about. Well, sort of.
First-time director Andrew Slater and Jakob Dylan reach out to many of these folk-rock legends, like Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield, and they are more than willing to talk about their experiences. They discuss music, how it was changing and just what was it about Laurel Canyon that enabled them to make some of the greatest songs of their generation.
Slater and Dylan also meet up with their contemporaries (Beck, Regina Spektor, Norah Jones, Eric Clapton, and the late Tom Petty) who share how the music of the mid-‘60s influenced them to perform in studio and on stage to the Beach Boys’ “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” and the Association’s “Never My Love.” It would be shocking to say these famous musicians weren’t singing each other’s praises, but that’s how everything comes across.
The documentary is a Slater-Dylan vanity project. The movie’s making was spurred by Dylan doing a tribute duets album, where he and contemporary artists perform covers of songs made famous by those residents of Laurel Canyon. The documentary is also related to a 2015 L.A. concert where Dylan and friends paid tribute to the 50th anniversary of California’s musical gold rush. Folk—not fools—gold.
Now, Slater was a long-time music manager and a former bigwig at Capitol Records, so he knows music. What he doesn’t know is documentaries. The majority of ECHO IN THE CANYON is self-aggrandizing, when it should be self-examination. We get that from Tom Petty and Eric Clapton, two artists very familiar with the scene. Hell, Petty left the swamps of Gainesville, Florida, for Los Angeles. He also knew he wanted to be a musician from the moment he saw the Beatles perform on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW. As for Clapton, his single “Let It Rain” (released in 1972) has a melody that strongly resembles Stephen Stills’ “Questions.” Yeah, I’d say he knows his folk-rock.
The documentary’s fatal flaw – besides the total omission of Joni Mitchell and the Doors (only living legends need apply?) – is making Jakob Dylan most of the focus. He’s in the presence of greatness, and yet he’s just a vacant observer listening to vibrant stories of former residents of Laurel Canyon. And when he’s not observing, he’s on the couch looking at a table of vinyl records, flanked by Regina Spektor, Beck, and Cat Power. Or, he’s on stage performing or in-studio recording covers of so many great songs. It’s almost maddening that a team of five editors worked on this project.
With so many scissorhands, the documentary is choppy and lacks coherence. I’m still trying to understand the inclusion of footage from Jacques Demy’s 1969 film MODEL SHOP. We’re told it is supposed to be a reflection of 1960s Los Angeles. All I see is a guy driving around until he notices a beautiful woman and starts to follows her. She’s no wallflower, that’s for sure.
ECHO IN THE CANYON is a nostalgia trip without an accomplished tour guide. This would have been a fitting swan song if Tom Petty was the one to guide us through this California sound. While there’s just enough original music and vintage clips to make you go on the journey once, don’t plan on returning any time soon.
ECHO IN THE CANYON is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital. You can rent it below as well.