Andrew Slater’s “Echo in the Canyon” is a documentary with a very specific question to tackle: How did American rock music evolve from the poppy, boppy sounds of the 1950s to something richer and edgier in just a few short years? To a style of music that remains popular today? More baby-boomer naval gazing, I initially thought. Will this country ever recover from the 1960s?
But the filmmaker’s theory centers on the confluence of folk and rock, along with varied talent converging onto the idyllic area of Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon. It offers an interesting perspective and gives the audience an opportunity to listen to some legendary musicians pontificate on their craft.
“Echo in the Canyon” officially starts its review with the mid-’60s British Invasion. Musicians such as Roger McGuinn and David Crosby of the Byrds watched the Beatles explode into the culture. This led to an effort not to imitate them but improve on them by taking the pure rock sound from Liverpool and layering it with the folk music that was taking shape in the basement bars of New York City.
The idea of mixing acoustic and electric, and adding folk’s storytelling elements, was radical at the time. The Byrds came up with some iconic tunes like “Turn, Turn, Turn” and — according to the film — pushed the Beatles themselves into more experimental work.
But the inspiration doesn’t stop there. Crosby breaks away from the band and teams up with the likes of Stephen Stills and Neil Young, all members of Buffalo Springfield, and developed a sound that was unlike anything audiences had heard.
Slater also explores how such bands as the Mamas and the Papas added to this seismic shift and eventually concludes with the Beach Boys creating their masterpiece “Pet Sounds.” That album ultimately leads the Beatles to become challenged by Brian Wilson and create “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
Few films detail the sometimes circular influence of art. The geographic proximity and willingness of musicians to work together — dropping in on one another to do drugs (in most cases), then playing around with a guitar or piano — to create an entirely new genre of sound is a pretty exciting topic to ponder.
Yet, there’s a strange wistfulness to “Echo in the Canyon.” Slater is not a filmmaker per se — he is known mainly as a former CEO of Capitol Records. The film exists as a love letter to a period of time in Los Angeles when art was pure and before the chaos of Vietnam, race riots and Nixon began to warp our society.
No doubt a former record executive longs for the days when musicians were trapped in impossible contracts that offered them little to no money and people had to listen to music solely on radio stations and albums. Perhaps Slater’s nostalgia is sincere, but it feels like self-serving revisionism.
A slight complaint, because “Echo in the Canyon” does offer intimate insights into this music. We get Tom Petty’s last on-camera interview — worth catching the film alone. Ringo Starr, Michelle Phillips and Eric Clapton offer their memories of the period. All are interviewed by Jakob Dylan, who is a fine musician but not much of an interviewer. Every once in a while, someone will say something and his response is “Ehhhhh.” As only a Dylan can do.
There are also interludes where Dylan gets onstage with the likes of Beck, Norah Jones and Fiona Apple to perform work from this era. As someone who still digs my ’90s music, this was pretty fun to watch. Although with all the musicians still influenced by folk rock (The Lumineers and Bon Iver come to mind), one wonders why the film stopped recruiting talent at those who hit the charts around 1997.
No matter — it’s Jakob Dylan’s money financing “Echo in the Canyon,” not mine. The audience is treated to a deep, satisfying cut into art that still resonates. This particular echo sure does carry a tune.