"Echo In The Canyon” opens with as recognizable a group of musical notes as are heard in any folk rock song, the jangle of the guitar at the beginning of The Byrds’ “Turn! Turn! Turn!” the lyrics of which are rooted in the Bible, Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 to be precise.
This version by The Byrds of the Pete Seeger’s song serves to underscore what we learn was the communal nature of the Los Angeles music scene from 1965 to 1967.
The movie is framed mostly among the residents of Laurel Canyon, a colorful group of individuals and bands, whose emergence on the folk rock scene in Los Angeles led to the writing of some of the most popular songs that defined an era.
The artists we see on-screen influenced each other, often popping over for a visit to someone’s house in the neighborhood to read some newly-written lyrics or play new chords on a 12-string Rickenbacker guitar, the iconic musical instrument preferred by many of these friendly villagers.
The music-filled documentary is directed, co-written, and produced by former journalist and recording industry veteran Andrew Slater; co-written and co-produced by Eric Barrett; and executive produced by Jakob Dylan of the Wallflowers, and son of Bob, who also acts as our on-screen guide.
In talking about “Echo In The Canyon,” Slater says: “Growing up in New York City in the 1960s, AM radio transported me to places I wanted to be. The Beatles defined mod London, while songs by The Byrds, The Beach Boys, The Mamas & The Papas, and Buffalo Springfield painted an idyllic picture of life in bohemian Los Angeles. My first experiences seeing any of the music I loved performed was not in a concert hall. I was too young to go.
“So, instead, I went to a movie theater, where seeing such films as “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Help!,” “Don’t Look Back,” “Monterey Pop,” and “Woodstock” forever changed my DNA. But most striking were the vivid sounds and images created by the California bands of the mid-sixties. Never able to shake them, I was drawn to live in Los Angeles by these groups and the lifestyles they expressed in song. After moving out west, I went on for the decades to come to write about, play, and produce music, and then eventually become a creative executive.”
The groups Slater mentions are all part of “Echo In The Canyon,” which celebrates a remarkable diversity of influences that created often drug- and sex-induced microcosm. Imagine, if you will, the jam sessions. It was truly “California Dreamin’” on a grand scale.
Jakob Dylan was working on an album covering songs by numerous folk rock bands of the mid-‘60s. Because of his creative association with Slater, the two decided a documentary would highlight the makers of the music, and if possible, include interviews with the most-important musicians from the Los Angeles scene. A 2015 tribute concert was held at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown L.A. featuring Jakob Dylan, Beck, Cat Power, Regina Spektor, and Jade Castrinos.
By the mid-'60s, the modern folk music movement pioneered by Seeger, and made popular by Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and others, had ascended to the top, but change was blowin’ in the wind. The Byrds, featuring Roger McGuinn and David Crosby, released an all-electric version of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” thus kicking folk rock into high gear.
A musical earthquake happened and Laurel Canyon was the epicenter. Along with The Byrds, you had Stephen Stills and Neil Young of Buffalo Springfield, The Mamas & The Papas, and, according to the movie, included in this musical reverie were The Beach Boys. You can also add the Beatles.
The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson tells about how the musical arrangements on the Beatles’ albums of the period influenced his own songwriting and chord choices for The Beach Boys’ seminal “Pet Sounds” album, which including the popular song “Good Vibrations.” “Pet Sounds” inspired the Beatles’ groundbreaking “Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band,” a fact Ringo Starr confirms.
“Echo In The Canyon” is rolling with wonderful stories told by a raft of talented characters. David Crosby reveals comically why he was fired from The Byrds. Michelle Phillips has her own revelations; extramarital affairs led to her being removed from The Mamas And The Papas. Also talking on camera are, among others, Jackson Browne, Eric Clapton, John Sebastian, Graham Nash, and the aforementioned McGuinn, Stills, and Starr. Browne and McGuinn are particularly insightful.
Jakob Dylan’s interview with Tom Petty, which takes place in a vintage guitar store, is woven throughout the film. Petty discusses how the folk rock era influenced his own musical career. It’s strong material, made all the more poignant because the movie is dedicated to the late rocker.
A dreamlike thread involves selective images from filmmaker Jacque Demy’s “Model Shop” from 1969. It’s about a young L.A. man, about to be drafted, who fears commitment.
There are moments when Jakob Dylan seems too emotionally distant, and some of the Orpheum concert footage isn’t as illuminating as he and Slater clearly thought it would be.
The greatest omission? Where’s Joni Mitchell? She famously lived in Laurel Canyon on Lookout Mountain Avenue and was friends and worked with many of the singers noted.
Caveats aside, “Echo In The Canyon” is a journey well-worth taking.
Michael Calleri reviews films for the Niagara Gazette. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.