By Karen Gordon
Echo In the Canyon is an affectionate look at the pop music that came out of the Laurel Canyon area of Los Angeles in the mid-‘60s, a period that the film argues quite effectively, was hugely influential.
Part concert film, part conventional documentary, it looks only at the years from 1965 to 1967. when Laurel Canyon became a creative hot spot.
The area offered cheap rent, and so became a kind of bohemian melting pot, where artists, actors, musicians and other creative types played together, wrote together and pushed pop music in a different direction.
The spark for this doc appears to be to be the anniversary of the release of the first album by The Byrds in 1965, often regarded as the album that created the folk-rock movement.
To mark that occasion the movie’s co-writer and director, Andrew Slater, (who was president of Capitol Records from 2001 to 2007), and musician Jakob Dylan, put on a concert at the Orpheum Theatre in the summer of 2015. They pulled together contemporary artists including Beck, Cat Power, Regina Spektor and Fiona Apple to perform some of the songs from that early folk rock area. The concert segments speak to the timelessness of the songs.
Those performances are interspersed with interviews, also done by Dylan, with some of the notable musicians of the era. It’s an impressive list: Byrds founder Roger McGuinn (who created the jingle jangley 12 string guitar sound that partly defined folk rock), his Byrds bandmate David Crosby; Crosby’s future bandmate Stephen Stills, whose band Buffalo Springfield (co-founded with Canadians Neil Young and Bruce Palmer) was part of the Laurel Canyon scene, and Michelle Phillips, the sole surviving member of The Mamas and the Papas (and the only woman from the era who is interviewed in the film).
Echo In The Canyon is not solely focused on folk-rock. Brian Wilson, who wrote Pet Sounds during that era from his sandbox living room in his Laurel Canyon house, sits down at a piano to chat with Dylan.
Perhaps the most poignant part of the documentary is the presence of the late Tom Petty, who talks at length about how the music of that era influenced him. Petty and Dylan, sit together and talk casually in a guitar store, where Petty pulls down a guitar or two to demo a few licks, and charmingly remembers winning an album on the radio that turned out to be by the Beach Boys.
“I can’t see anything in Mozart that’s better than Brian Wilson," he says at one point.
It could be argued that Echo In The Canyon is perhaps a bit random in its selection of artists from the era. Or that it doesn’t do justice to the women involved in the scene at the time.
But then the film doesn’t claim to be definitive. The goal seems to be to celebrate a sliver of time in the evolution of pop music that was more influential than is probably broadly acknowledged. And as such, it’s worthwhile and often engrossing viewing for anyone who loves pop music.
Echo in The Canyon. Directed by Andrew Slater. Starring Roger McGuinn, Michelle Phillips, Tom Petty. Opens Friday, June 7 at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.