Part concert film, part behind the scenes featurette and part documentary, “Echo in the Canyon” was a delightful surprise that is likely to end up on several year end lists because of it’s subject matter. Laurel Canyon has been known for forty years as a mecca for the creative community in Southern California. The 2002 drama featuring Christian Bale and Francis McDormand explored some of the bohemian lifestyle that flourished there but it was mainly focused on the psycho sexual drama of it’s story. This film emphasizes a very different component, one that a lot more people are likely to care about, the music scene in SoCal, particularly the years from 1965-1967.
Automatically, modern audiences might be put off by the subject of music from fifty years ago that they may be unfamiliar with. I was flabbergasted a couple of weeks ago at some of the bands my students had never heard of. But once the music starts flowing in this film, our DNA kicks in and even people who don’t know the artists will know the songs. If you pay enough attention, they will also know the importance of this period to popular music. This was a transitional period as Rock and Roll was maturing from the pop strains of the fifties and the early Beatles, to a more sophisticated music structure and lyrical content. The Beatles influenced The Beach Boys who in turn influenced the Beatles, and all of that influenced dozens of other musicians.
The film was executive produced by Jakob Dylan and he is featured as an interviewer and a performer. As a way of contextualizing the music, he brings together a variety of artists to put together a tribute show to that era and to record songs for an album. In the course of the film he digs up stories about the most influential acts that were thriving in that period and place. “The Byrds”, The Mamas and the Papas”, “Buffalo Springfield” are the main acts, but there was a sense of comradely competition and sharing among all the musicians of the Canyon. Dylan is an effective performer but as an interviewer, his main skill is to get out of the way of the subjects that he is talking to. Michelle Phillips is pretty honest about the lifestyle she led, David Crosby brutally assesses the reasons that the Byrds broke up, Roger McGuinn is thoughtful in his analysis of what made people creative. There are a dozen other members of that community who share thoughts and stories as well, but just as you might start worrying that all we are going to get are talking heads, a musical sequence, archival footage or outtakes from a forgotten Hollywood film made by French film makers arrives to entice us further.
The retro footage from “Model Shop” shows the era of the film and was an inspiration to the producers and director to put this film together. Mid to late sixties Los Angeles is where I grew up so it has a nostalgic feel for me as well as providing some historical context. The biggest thrill in the film however is revisiting the songs that still thrive in our heads. TV clips from the Sullivan show and Dick Clark often introduce a song, and then we get to hear from the creators themselves and finally, the music is re-created for us. Those new versions are sometime performed in an intimate living room jam session, or maybe in a recording studio as a new collection of the songs is being prepared for an album. The most joyous place we hear them however is onstage at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles in a concert from 2015 when this project began. When you hear the music, time stands still and at least for me, my memories are stimulated as much as the drugs stimulated the creativity of the original artists.
I don’t see enough documentaries to feel confident about comparing their technical qualities very much. I can talk about their style and themes however, and this film hits it’s themes very effectively. The entertainment value of the movie is not neglected either, especially since the subject matter is a form of popular entertainment. I was very wistful each time the late Tom Petty was on screen. Although he was not a member of the community of that era, he is the embodiment of the influence it had on popular music, and he knew that well. His reflections serve as a sort of Greek Chorus to the whole enterprise and the film ends up being dedicated to him. I saw this at the Archlight in Hollywood and in addition to be surrounded by the neighborhoods that are featured in the film, there was a special feature after the film where a correspondent for the Archlight Theater chain interviewed the film makers and they added some more to the story. If this is playing somewhere near you at an Archlight Theater, i’m sure you will find it worthwhile to stay for the extra ten minutes.
By the way, we immediately went next door to Amoeba Records to try and get the soundtrack, sadly it is not out until the end of the month. I will be digging up the original songs to listen to until then. I could not recommend this film more highly.