I won’t say it was a key decision in my moving to Los Angeles, but the wealth of history that’s found within it has always fascinated me, and a key element of that history is the 1960s music scene that sprung up within Laurel Canyon. Ensconced in the twisted roads of the Hollywood Hills, Laurel Canyon during that time was a wealth of musical creativity, with musicians often stopping by to collaborate and groupies having easy access to hearing the music first hand. Much of this I knew from books on the subject, so much of what’s discussed in Andrew Slater’s Echo in the Canyon won’t be too revelatory to those in the know. What it does is give audiences’ a first-hand look at the Laurel Canyon music scene from the creators who inspired and wrote the music itself, and when they’re front and center Echo in the Canyon truly sings!
Echo in the Canyon consists of two parts: the historical exploration of the development of the Laurel Canyon sound and the musicians that popularized it, and Jakob Dylan’s tribute concert to those same singers. One of these is far more engaging than the other. It’s easy to see why Dylan’s participation is so prominent; the son of Bob Dylan certainly had to help secure interviews as well as the numerous needle drops and footage that fills the less than 90-minute runtime. And, to his credit, when Dylan is interviewing people like Michelle Phillips or David Crosby the analysis is richer because these are musicians speaking to a musician.
Being able to sit amongst legends has to be a heady experience, and what resonates about Echo in the Canyon is the numerous angles it finds to approach the music. There’s a history to the songs that popularized the ’60s and the musicians knew to pay homage to their roots. Ringo Starr and the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn go in-depth on how ’60s folk music had its origins in spoken word stories that were eventually set to music. Like modern-day fables their poetry was building off a tradition that had been there long before them. Crosby himself likens the music of the era to “poetry” and that modern songs today don’t have that same reliance on lyrics, a statement that’s far too true. With so many highly talented people, all of whom are so musically inclined – hearing Brian Wilson discuss how a simple chord change alters the entire tone of a song – could easily make Echo in the Canyon fit for a music major but everything is incredibly accessible.
There’s little emphasis on the accessibility of Laurel Canyon, though it is tied in to what Los Angeles means itself. The interview subjects do discuss the landscape of Laurel Canyon proper and the significance of the Canyon Store, but it’s all minor. However this isn’t to say that they don’t have stories about living in those locations. Tales of wild parties are thrown out and contradicted by others who were there; Michelle Phillips talks about her affairs on the public stage, and how being in a band with dueling genders only led to sexual tension. Had Slater and crew strictly focused on the musicians involved things would feel far stronger.
However just as much screentime is taken up by the concert Dylan is organizing. We watch him rerecord several of the songs made famous by his interview subjects, and are treated to poorly canned and scripted moments between Dylan and his Hollywood music friends trying to come up with introspective thoughts on what they’re listening to. There’s a reason these people aren’t actors.
Regardless of its flaws, Echo in the Canyon is a must for fans of the ’60s music coming out of California, and for those eager to learn more about Laurel Canyon. A deep and heady mix of music documentary and educational treatise, you’ll understand why they don’t make ’em like this anymore.