Tightly framing the Los Angeles music scene with a focus on the mid-’60s emergence of folk rock in the city’s storied Laurel Canyon district, Echo in the Canyon deftly captures the diversity of influences that launched groundbreaking bands like The Byrds, The Mamas & the Papas and Buffalo Springfield to international acclaim.
Music industry vet and first-time filmmaker Andrew Slater leverages his extensive connections to coax many luminaries of the era on camera, effortlessly interviewed by singer-songwriter Jakob Dylan of the Wallflowers. Rich with revealing observations and engaging anecdotes, Slater’s documentary skirts the nostalgia trap by entertainingly connecting with an impressive lineup of contemporary singer-songwriters referencing the influential ’60s pop style with their own releases.
As producer for the Wallflowers’ 2000 album Breach, Slater had already developed a collaborative relationship with Dylan. When the musician began work on an album covering songs by a variety of original folk rock bands titled Echo in the Canyon, the two recognized the opportunity to realize a more comprehensive project. The documentary would include profiles of prominent musicians from the period, as well as footage from a 2015 Los Angeles tribute concert headlined by Dylan, who would also serve as executive producer.
By the mid-’60s, the folk music movement pioneered by the likes of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, which was broadly popularized by Bob Dylan’s early releases, had reached its peak. Musicians were striking out in new and innovative directions, enabled by accessibility to electric instruments and improved recording technology. The Byrds, a Los Angeles band featuring Roger McGuinn and David Crosby, announced the emergence of folk rock with their all-electric recording of Dylan’s classic “Mr. Tambourine Man” on their 1965 debut album of the same title.
Dozens of other bands rushed to adopt the new musical style, many of them settling in Los Angeles. Soon the Laurel Canyon folk rock scene included not only Crosby and McGuinn, but Stephen Stills and Neil Young of Buffalo Springfield, The Mamas & the Papas, and members of The Beach Boys, The Monkees and other emerging L.A. groups.
McGuinn provides Dylan with a brief account of the burgeoning celebrity neighborhood, where residents regularly dropped into one another’s homes unannounced for jam sessions and impromptu parties. These early years also saw the departure of The Byrds’ Crosby, who good-naturedly acknowledges that his intransigence and bad behavior led to his ejection from the band and eventual partnership with Stephen Stills and Graham Nash.
Meanwhile The Mamas & the Papas were going through their own growing pains after relocating from New York City. Following the success of “California Dreamin’” and “Monday, Monday,” the pressure was on to deliver more hits. Vocalist Michelle Phillips unapologetically tells Dylan about the group’s profoundly rocky period when she was expelled from the band in 1966 for transgressions related to multiple extramarital affairs.
These insightful anecdotes build up to an appearance by The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, who describes how producer George Martin’s arrangements on The Beatles’ mid-decade albums influenced his songwriting and instrument choices on “Pet Sounds,” particularly the evergreen hit “Good Vibrations.” The Beach Boys’ album then returned the favor, helping to inspire The Beatles’ groundbreaking “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” release.
Generous interviews with John Sebastian, Graham Nash, Stephen Stills, Jackson Browne, Ringo Starr and Eric Clapton, many of whom have fond and often humorous memories of their Laurel Canyon associations, round out the film. An extensive discussion between Dylan and Tom Petty (to whom the film is dedicated) in a vintage guitar shop manages to top them all for emotional content, however, as the Florida rocker describes the impact of the folk rock era on his own influential musical catalog.
Besides these interviews, along with archival clips and photos from the period, Slater’s team of five editors weaves in the 2015 L.A. tribute concert footage and studio performances of classic hits with collaborators from the “Echo” album, including Beck, Regina Spektor, Cat Power and Jade Castrinos. Brief musical performances by Wilson, Phillips and McGuinn, sometimes playing with Dylan’s band, represent some of the film’s musical highlights.
Limiting their scope to the 1965-67 time frame forces the filmmakers to omit significant latecomers to the scene, however, including Joni Mitchell and Carole King, resulting in a male-skewing perspective that’s only occasionally relieved by the ever-vivacious Phillips.
The volume of material and frequently rotating personalities sometimes make the film feel overstuffed, while clips from French writer-director Jacques Demy’s 1969 Los Angeles-set Model Shop, which the filmmakers consider particularly evocative of mid-’60s sensibilities, don’t add much to either the topic or the context of the documentary. Musical selections include an unbeatable lineup of period songs by the original artists or cover versions performed by Dylan and his collaborators.
Production company: Mirror Films
Director: Andrew Slater
Screenwriters: Andrew Slater, Eric Barrett
Producers: Andrew Slater, Eric Barrett
Executive producers: Jakob Dylan, Daniel Braun, Zach Katz, Kath Daum
Directors of photography: Pat Darrin, Kyle Kibbe, Brett Turnbull, Vance Burberry, Garry Waller, Mark Williams
Editors: Jeremy Rhodes, Mike Nichols, Kevin Klauber, Daniel J. Clark, Chris Bredesen
Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival