DIRECTED BY: ANDREW SLATER/2019
Echo in the Canyon is the aptly named documentary from debut director Andrew Slater as it chronicles the phenomenon that was the “Laurel Canyon” sound of the 1960’s and its impact on music culture today. An echo is a sound that continues to reverberate, long after the original sound has stopped, and that is an appropriate description for this amazing music that continues to influence our culture, long after the artists and musicians who created it struck those iconic first notes, or penned the lyrics of the songs we continue to sing some 50 years later.
Our musical host for this journey through time is appropriately a second generation descendant of rock royalty, and an acclaimed musician himself, Jakob Dylan. As the son of the legendary Bob Dylan, and the front man of his own band, The Wallflowers, Jakob is a good bridge from the past to the present. He is a man who grew up knowing about many of the artists the documentary is chronicling, and someone who is still out touring and feeling the echo effect of it all.
Jakob leads a tour of the actual Laurel Canyon area, visiting vintage music shops and record stores, locating remnants of rock, folk, and pop’s golden age. With the aide of handy on-screen maps, the audience gets a chance to see just how close many of these renowned artists lived to one another, which brings more context to the stories they have to tell as Jakob talks to them about some of America’s most culturally significant tunes that they wrote.
Some of the original artists, producers, and engineers of that time, that are interviewed for this film, include Lou Adler (Grammy Award winning producer of The Mamas and the Papas, Carole King, Janis Joplin), Jackson Browne (Singer Songwriter for The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, who worked with The Eagles, David Crosby, Joni Mitchell, etc.), David Crosby (The Byrds, Crosby/Stills/Nash/& Young), Roger McGuinn (The Byrds), Graham Nash (The Hollies, Crosby/Stills/Nash/& Young), Michelle Phillips (The Mamas & The Papas), John Sebastian (The Lovin’ Spoonful), Ringo Starr (The Beatles), and Stephen Stills (Buffalo Springfield, Crosby/Stills/Nash/& Young).
Some of the real nuggets of this rock documentary come from seeing interviews with Brian Wilson (The Beach Boys) whose album Pet Sounds is perhaps the greatest record ever produced with the Laurel Canyon sound, whose making was captured in the film Love & Mercy. It is also the main driving influence for The Beatles making Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band which is regarded as one of rock’s greatest albums.
You will also see some interesting remembrances of Eric Clapton (John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers, The Yardbirds, Cream, Blind Faith, Derek & The Dominos, solo), who is speaking of the American influence on the British music scene, of which he was a prime player. Echo in the Canyon also has the distinction of being Tom Petty’s final official on-camera interview before his untimely death in 2017. It was a beautiful moment captured on film as Petty waxed poetically about the influence of groups like The Byrds, The Beach Boys, and even the Beatles, much like listeners would hear when he hosted his Buried Treasure radio show on his own SiriusXM station. It was great to see him just walk around a music store talking guitars and equipment with Jakob. It was a reminder of yet another loss to add to the many artists being discussed in this documentary.
It was also fitting that Petty provide a voice to demonstrate the echo effect of this unique sound on his own band, as he discussed bands like the Byrds, which he covered with The Heartbreakers on songs like “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better“, and as someone who had sung with legendary artists from that golden age as a member of The Traveling Wilbury’s alongside Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, George Harrison (The Beatles), and Jeff Lynne (ELO). He had also done work with Roger McGuinn of The Byrds, and so his insights were even more poignant and meaningful, and brought some great perspective to the documentary’s chief aim of discussing this “echo” effect.
All of this exploration was born from Jakob Dylan’s desire to celebrate the 50 year anniversary of the folk and rock music of that era that came from the canyon that sits in the hills close to the famed Sunset Strip. This desire culminated in a passion project where he headlined a concert in 2015. He and other artists came together to cover various tunes, both big hits and deep cuts, from the artists of Laurel Canyon’s golden age. We get shots of this concert, where we see Jakob Dylan singing alongside some of his peers and more modern artists like Beck, Regina Spektor, Cat Power, Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age), Norah Jones, and Jade Castrinos (formally of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes), and Fiona Apple. They faithfully recreate these iconic songs and this concert was obviously a celebration. My hope is the eventual blu-ray release of this film will feature the entire concert as a bonus feature of some sort.
Fans of music, even those who have no knowledge of this golden age from Laurel Canyon, will be captivated by this documentary. Echo in the Canyon highlights the music and artistry of these artists, with Dylan taking time to record iconic songs of the era at the actual studios where they were first recorded. Showcasing Jakob Dylan’s steel nerves are the scenes of him singing “In My Room” in the very studio where Pet Sounds was recorded, while Brian Wilson looks on! Talk about pressure! He also covers a The Mamas & The Papas tune with Michelle Phillips sitting in front of him, giving him feedback!
This film was an amazing celebration of a musical scene that wasn’t built on competition, but on cooperation and community. The very draw of the canyon itself was that you could be close to L.A.’s hottest music scene and yet still disappear into the quiet and isolated hills and canyon nearby and feel like you were in the middle of nowhere. This feeling of nature and isolation, in the midst of one of America’s largest cities, allowed for artistic boundaries to be stretched and for some of music’s greatest songs to be forged. They are songs that stand the test of time, and like the title of this documentary film suggests, they are songs that continue to inspire new generations looking to transform, and be transformed by the power of music.
The closing shot of Neil Young soloing on his guitar, all by himself, in the studio as the credits roll is a perfect closing touch to one of the best rock documentaries to have been made in the last decade. Echo in the Canyon understands its subject intimately and focuses like a laser beam on just that. Here, there is no filler! Periphery issues about the bands themselves, the political nature of the 60’s, and other such topics are wisely side-stepped, unless they support the greater purpose for what made “that sound” so special. Jakob Dylan is a perfect host for such a journey, and if Echo in the Canyon finds the wide audience it deserves, I would suggest that Dylan find an outlet to continue to take us on such a valuable and worthwhile musical adventure in the near future. By the time the credits roll, I felt like we were just getting started.