In the mid-60s big changes were afoot in the US, culturally, politically, and musically. The British invasion brought The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and others to America, and rock music was in its formative years. It was still coming together and mutating from its roots in the blues, country, and folk. The watershed moment was Bob Dylan trading in his acoustic guitar for electric thus helping to take folk music beyond what it had been before.
But he wasn’t the first or only musician to do it — there was a broader context of new technology, a spirit of experimentation, and musical cross-pollination, particularly in and around LA, and specifically in Laurel Canyon. The canyon scene had groups of astounding musicians focused on poetic lyrics and complex harmonies, like The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, the Mamas and the Papas, and The Beach Boys. They influenced each other, as well as their friends like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Jackson Browne, and Eric Clapton.
In Echo in the Canyon, Jakob Dylan interviews some of the major players from that scene, like Roger McGuinn, Stephen Stills, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Brian Wilson, and Michelle Phillips, plus some of the people they influenced like Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, and Tom Petty. And if that weren’t enough, he brings together some of his musical contemporaries like Regina Spektor, Beck, Norah Jones, Cat Power, and Fiona Apple to re-record and talk about some of the most interesting songs of the time period. Between the original songs, the new versions, and the firsthand stories of how they came about, the result is a combination musical documentary and concert film right up there with the all-time greats.
“…a broader context of new technology, a spirit of experimentation, and musical cross-pollination, particularly…in Laurel Canyon.”
A highlight of the film is the way it weaves together stories from the bands who knew and influenced each other. Bob Dylan heard the electric folk of the Byrds and decided to do it himself. And of course, they were influenced by Dylan, recording their own version of Mr. Tambourine Man. Clapton and the Beatles were influenced by the electric folk sound too. George Harrison snagged one of the prototypes of the 12 string Rickenbackers (an instrument favored by Petty himself and Roger McGuinn). How would history have been different if someone else got that guitar?
The pop sound evolved quickly, from songs about love to more poetic lyrics influenced by the folk tradition. Complex harmonies started to dominate, and experimentation continued from there. Perhaps the pinnacle of the era was the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, delivered by the genius of Brian Wilson. Just about every musician of the times mentions the revelatory nature of that album, and the race of each band to make their own version of something that groundbreaking. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was The Beatles’ answer.
Smartly, Jakob Dylan and company stay away from trying to recreate some of the most complex and iconic hits like Good Vibrations. What could they add to that? Instead, they mostly focus on the slightly lesser known songs of the period. Their versions switch nearly seamlessly between them recording it in a studio and live performances. I have no idea how the joins were done — some kind of editing voodoo — but the transitions are magical.
At first, I was confused about Jakob Dylan’s ever-present role in the film. He interviews the principals and is the main player on all the new versions of the songs. Was this just a new album vanity project for him? That doubt quickly melted away when I saw what he had to offer. He’s always a charismatic presence on camera, and a gifted musician. Moreover, he seems genuinely curious about history and isn’t afraid to be seen as a student among the masters of the era.
“Music is the essence here, and you just can’t help but get carried away…”
Another genius behind the film is Andrew Slater. He directed, produced, and co-wrote the movie, and expertly chose to focus on a singular narrative that carries us through without being sidetracked by all the fascinating anecdotes of the time. It helped that he was formerly the CEO of Capitol Music, so had relationships with some of the featured artists. The rights clearances alone would have doomed a film from nearly anyone else. Slater was able to achieve a critical mass of notable artists, and show a work in progress to others to show just how serious a doc this was.
The reality is that no amount of words can truly give you the experience of this film. Music is the essence here, and you just can’t help but get carried away in the songs. Beyond that, the personalities involved are irresistible, helped of course by a half-century of friendships, love, backstabbing, affairs, and intrigue. Then when you layer on the modern artists and their takes, you just get something we’ve never really seen before.
Ultimately these bands broke up, sometimes re-forming into new collectives — Stephen Stills from Buffalo Springfield, David Crosby from the Byrds, and Graham Nash from the Hollies came together to form Crosby, Stills & Nash (later to add Neil Young, also from Buffalo Springfield). The film traces the end of that era to Young leaving Buffalo Springfield. The era of the individual had begun, and the psychedelic scene would cause rock music to mutate again. But the LA scene in 1964-1967 was still something magical. The counterculture was starting, women’s rights and civil rights were entering the public consciousness, and folk was morphing into rock.
Many of these folks won’t be around much longer. I have a feeling Echo in the Canyon will be watched for decades into the future as the essential document of a very specific time and place that changed music forever.
Echo In The Canyon (2018) Directed by Andrew Slater. Written by Eric Barrett, Andrew Slater. Echo In The Canyon screened at the 2019 Santa Barbara International Film Festival.