“Echo in the Canyon,” the big-hearted documentary from ex-Capitol Records CEO Andrew Slater and Jakob Dylan covering Laurel Canyon’s legendary music community circa 1964-1967, opens with musicians bantering about Rickenbacker guitars, whose jangly sound revolutionized 1960s pop. The artists in question are Jakob Dylan and Tom Petty (in his last film interview), and their camaraderie sets the tone for Dylan’s subsequent interviews with Jackson Browne, Eric Clapton, David Crosby, Roger McGuinn, Graham Nash, Michelle Phillips, John Sebastian, Ringo Starr, Stephen Stills, and Brian Wilson, who are visibly more relaxed conversing with a fellow artist than fielding questions from some DocumentaryLand talking head.
Dylan and Petty’s exchange also underscores Slater’s essential point that the film is “more about the echo than the canyon” — an echo still reverberating throughout musician and songwriter communities of Laurel, Beachwood and Topanga Canyons, Eagle Rock and Highland Park.
“The film celebrates Laurel Canyon in the beginning, before the onset of psychedelia and the singer-songwriter era that’s most associated with it, Joni Mitchell and the search for the individual,” says Slater, who considers that early period the “the age of innocence” of California rock. “But it’s really about the echo of those ideas and that creativity that gave birth to the music.”
During an interview he cites the culture-shifting circle of influence recounted in the film: Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn saw George Harrison playing a Rickenbacker 12-string, then got one himself and electrified folk music. Harrison heard the Byrds’ recording of Pete Seeger’s “The Bells of Rhymney” and wrote “If I Needed Someone” for the Beatles’ “Rubber Soul” album; Brian Wilson heard “Rubber Soul” and composed the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds”; and the Beatles heard “Pet Sounds” and created “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
“That exchange of ideas, right there, sets in motion the foundation for pop music, rock music, for the next 50 years,” Slater says. “Then there’s the moment where Stephen Stills tells you he wrote this song ‘Questions’ because he heard a song of Judy Collins’ called ‘Since You Asked,’ and then Eric Clapton tells you that he heard ‘Questions’ and he wrote his first single from his first record called ‘Let It Rain.’ While we all know that conversation that people have with themselves in their head when they’re trying to create something, the great thing about the film is that it lays it out, and the people who were actually creating this music are telling you that, and in a very personal way.”
“We were putting good poetry on the radio, pop radio,” David Crosby observes onscreen. Crosby contributes several choice bon mots (including the record-straightening admission that he was kicked out of the Byrds for “being an asshole,” not his notorious drug abuse). He, Nash and Stills figure in some of the most engaging scenes, recalling Laurel Canyon’s neighborly vibe. Mamas and the Papas siren Michelle Phillips, the lone representative of Laurel Canyon’s women, tells some of the zestiest stories.
“What made Laurel Canyon cool is it wasn’t based around a club,” notes guitarist Fernando Perdomo, who as a kid was so “obsessed” with Buffalo Springfield and CSN&Y that he recorded himself playing a “mock concert” of Neil Young songs. He accompanies Dylan in the film and appreciates how the story is told from the musicians’ perspective. “Laurel Canyon was a social network. All these people would just gather at each other’s houses and say, ‘Hey, what are you up to? Listen to this song I just wrote.’”
“Echo in the Canyon” strives to show that music’s legacy in action, with concert performances by Dylan and guests Fiona Apple (a powerful “In My Room”), Beck, Cat Power, Regina Spektor, and a sunny Jade Castrinos. They aren’t all obvious Laurel Canyon offspring, but their affection for the material is evident, and the house band (Perdomo, harmony singer Justine Bennett, guitarists Erik Paparozzi and Geoff Pearlman, bassist Dan Rothchild, keyboardist Jordan Summers, and drummer Matt Tecu) fully commits to ’60s playing styles.
Slater, a respected producer for Dylan’s band the Wallflowers and Apple, among others, initially planned to make a record. Then he saw Jacques Demy’s 1969 film “Model Shop,” set in LA, and was unexpectedly inspired to revisit places he loved and music that drew him here.
“Inside those songs were stories about whatever was going on, so I wanted to find that, and find out what life was like,” he recalls. His project swiftly evolved into a film centered around the trade of creative ideas between Laurel Canyon’s artists.
Their community has been as essential to Laurel Canyon’s myth as their widely beloved music. Songwriters jamming in each other’s kitchens, writing of their love triangles … it’s reminiscent of painters in 19th-century Paris. Do such productive enclaves demand geographic proximity?
“Virtual community exists, because that’s how people are communicating and interacting,” Slater says. “But I still say that to play music, more often than not it’s about communicating through an instrument with other people in the room. And that exchange of notes, ideas, verse, is the thing that becomes the soundtrack to our lives. That’s happening everywhere [although] the bridge to that stuff becoming a national or a mainstream culture movement may be broken.”
“Music happens at a particular moment in time, and changes everything going forward,” Jackson Browne says in the film. Producer Lou Adler entertainingly compares the Laurel Canyon scene to 1940s movie stars, who they tried to emulate. Petty, to whom the film is dedicated, opines that dreamers are allowed in LA “because people believe it might be possible to do something that’s not ordinary.”
The most telling moment, one that crystallizes the film’s intent and the threads of community binding musicians across generations, occurs in a studio. As Phillips listens to playback of Dylan’s recording of a Mamas and the Papas song, he quietly watches her emotional response. It is a sweet scene, warm and sincere, and their mutual gratitude expresses all that needs to be said.
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