How did an apparently sincere tribute turn into such a weirdly clueless vanity project?
The music scene evoked in the documentary “Echo in the Canyon” remains a chimerical wonder, equal parts bliss and chaos. In the 1960s, a daisy chain of like-minded songwriters and performers moved to the winding-road Eden up and over from Hollywood Boulevard, in the area of Los Angeles known as Laurel Canyon. This was the Shakespearean magical-forest part of LA, green and lush, where you couldn’t really hear the traffic or taste the smog.
It was (and is, still, sort of) a peaceful exception to most of the rest of the city, though today, driving north on Laurel Canyon Boulevard, there’s usually a long, slow line of cars driven by respectable-looking residents, or by swivel-head tourists wondering where all the hippies went.
As Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills & Nash (Neil Young came later) puts it in the movie: With “so much great music floating around,” one group’s influences became another’s inspirations. According to “Echo in the Canyon” everything started with The Beatles. George Harrison’s 12-string Rickenbacker guitar caught the ear of countless fellow musicians, among them Roger McGuinn, who tried “taking an old folk song and souping it up with a Beatle beat.” It didn’t catch on for him in New York or, a little later, in LA. And then it did, with The Byrds.
People in Laurel Canyon would drop by all the time, remembers Michelle Phillips of The Mamas & the Papas in the documentary, “and pretty soon you were writing a hit.”
An 82-minute nonfiction film would be silly to strive for that oxymoronic strategy, the “complete overview.” Here we get a full flowering of hits and separate careers, in bits and pieces. The hook for “Echo in the Canyon” is a 2015 tribute concert featuring Jakob Dylan of The Wallflowers, who conducts the on-camera interviews here with more self-conscious cool than easy insight.
Onetime Capitol Records head Andrew Slater, who mounted the concert with Dylan, Fiona Apple and other participants, ended up producing and directing the attendant documentary, tossing an inordinate amount of it in the direction of executive producer Dylan, his old friend and fellow Laurel Canyon aficionado. Dylan’s father, Bob, does not appear here. Then again, neither do all sorts of legends vital to the scene’s fame and reputation, including Joni Mitchell or Carole King. The Doors didn’t exist, really, according to “Echo in the Canyon.”
Slater constantly swings away from the source material and ’60s hitmakers to return to the 4-year-old concert footage or stilted, stagy discussions among Dylan, Regina Spektor, Beck and Cat Power regarding the music’s durability. Though footage culled from Jacques Demy’s 1969 LA fantasia “Model Shop” is intriguing, here we get Dylan as diffident travelogue host, retracing steps from the movie’s location work. The film steers clear of any troubling details or intimations of how things changed after August 1969.
As Michelle Phillips put it so vividly in a 2015 Vanity Fair oral history of Laurel Canyon: “The Manson murders ruined the LA music scene. That was the nail in the coffin of the freewheeling, let’s get high, everybody’s welcome, come on in, sit right down. Everyone was terrified. I carried a gun in my purse. And I never invited anybody over to my house again.”
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