Echo in the Canyon

Of Byrds and Beach Boys

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Early in the fascinating documentary Echo in the Canyon, rock legend Eric Clapton describes why, at the start of his career, he gravitated to the hilly Los Angeles enclave of Laurel Canyon. “I was attracted to eccentrics,” he says, “and they were all there.”

The eccentrics to which he is referring made up some of the greatest talents of the folk rock era covered in the film’s 1964-68 time frame. These include such luminaries as David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Brian Wilson, Roger McGuinn, and Graham Nash, all of whom are interviewed in the movie. Several artists-in-residence who came later, such as Jackson Browne, are also featured. Others, most conspicuously Joni Mitchell, are not.

If you care anything about the music of groups like the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, the Mamas and the Papas, the Beach Boys, or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the ramshackle, engagingly anecdotal Echo in the Canyon is required viewing. Directed by the veteran music industry producer Andrew Slater and featuring Jakob Dylan, Bob Dylan’s gifted musician son, as a kind of master of ceremonies, it offers up a cross section of reminiscences from that era intercut with appearances from a newer generation of artists, including Beck, Regina Spektor, Norah Jones, the late Tom Petty, and Jakob Dylan himself. We also see clips from a 2015 tribute concert in Los Angeles featuring many of these younger musicians covering songs from those Laurel Canyon years.

What makes this more than just a movie for fans of that music is that it delves into what made that era such a creative cauldron, comparable in some ways, as the film points out, to Paris of the 1920s and ’30s. It’s certainly possible to experience this film as a vast nostalgia trip. But Slater and Dylan don’t overdo the hearts and flowers. The musicians featured here are important because their music was important.

Laurel Canyon was geographically close to the music industry and yet tucked away in the Hollywood Hills. The camaraderie among resident musicians in those years was strong enough that, as Nash tells it, you could knock on any door and say, “Hey, listen to this.” Drop-in visitors included Ringo Starr, who talks about his admiration for the Byrds and amusingly about the difference between the laid-back atmosphere of LA recording studios and their fussy British counterparts. Starr also pays tribute to the Beach Boys, whose classic album Pet Sounds, with its interlocking narratives, was a prime influence on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Brian Wilson, in turn, talks about how the Beatles’ album Rubber Soul influenced Pet Sounds.

The ways in which these artistic inspirations abounded and cross-fertilized is the central theme of Echo in the Canyon. Perhaps by necessity, this approach downplays some of the darker aspects of that era. Drug anecdotes are mostly presented lightheartedly, and Wilson’s harrowing psychological battles go unremarked. Including such material would have made for a richer panorama, but the focus here is on the conviviality of those Laurel Canyon years and the creative ferment and idealism that came out of it. As Nash says, looking back, “I still believe music can change the world.”

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