Arguably the most sturdily crafted and entertainingly anecdotal documentary of its kind since Denny Tedesco’s “The Wrecking Crew,” a similarly nostalgic celebration of artists who generously contributed to the soundtrack of the baby boomer generation, Andrew Slater’s “Echo in the Canyon” offers a richly evocative and star-studded overview of the 1960s Laurel Canyon music scene.
Audiences old enough to have many of the epochal LPs referenced here stashed in their closets will know they’re in good hands right from the start, as the iconic first chords of the Byrds’ “Turn! Turn! Turn!” resound during the darkness of the film’s opening moments. But wait, there’s more: The songs of Buffalo Springfield, the Mamas and the Papas, the Beach Boys and other L.A.-based hitmakers of the era are also featured in a doc that shows how music that defined the California Sound of a half-century ago continues to inspire and influence contemporary artists. It’s a package that not only will delight viewers of a certain age but also folks who weren’t introduced to the songs until decades after the fact.
The movie marks the directorial debut for Slater, a former journalist and music industry veteran who collaborated with Jakob Dylan on a 2015 tribute concert in Los Angeles that showcased Dylan and other artists of his generation — including Fiona Apple, Beck, Cat Power, Norah Jones and Jade Castrinos — performing songs recorded more than 50 years earlier by the aforementioned legendary artists. While “Echo in the Canyon” features highlights from that concert, it devotes most of its running time to interviews Dylan conducted before and after the live event with Roger McGuinn and David Crosby of the Byrds; music producer Lou Adler; Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas; Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys; Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield; and other primary sources from the era (including Ringo Starr, John Sebastian and Eric Clapton).
Focused primarily on a period from 1965, when the Byrds topped the charts with their version of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” to 1967, just prior to the advent of psychedelia, when Buffalo Springfield released their ineffably haunting “Expecting to Fly,” Slater’s documentary recalls a heady time when folk music went electric; bold innovators and play-it-safers vied for attention on “American Bandstand” and “The Ed Sullivan Show”; and British sensations like the Beatles and Cream cross-pollinated with Los Angeles bands like the Byrds and the Beach Boys.
Tales are told, memories are rekindled, and admiration is expressed. McGuinn amusingly recalls a point in his solo-artist salad days when he tried, and failed, to make club audiences in New York and L.A. accept his cheeky folkie cover of the Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” — the type of musical hybrid that, not long after, would be typical of his early efforts with the Byrds. Phillips candidly admits that John Phillips, her then-husband and Mamas and Papas bandmate, wrote “Go Where You Wanna Go” for the group in response to her adulterous affairs.
Tom Petty, in one of his last recorded interviews before his death in 2017, talks of being drawn to L.A. from Florida after listing to music of the ‘60s folk-rock era, and insists that he “cannot see something in Mozart” that tops the best of Brian Wilson.
Wilson himself appears on camera to describe how the Beatles’ groundbreaking 1965 album “Rubber Soul” influenced the Beach Boys’ 1966 “Pet Sounds” — which in turn influenced the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (1967). “Echo in the Canyon” describes several such instances of mutual inspiration among the ’60s artists who gravitated toward L.A.’s Laurel Canyon district, an area where even struggling artists could find affordable lodging — and supportive peers who might share drugs and/or sleeping partners — while building careers. It’s left almost entirely up to the unapologetically blunt-spoken David Crosby to suggest that sometimes, jealousy reared its head: He freely admits that when Buffalo Springfield signed on (briefly) as the opening act while he was with the Byrds, he feared they might steal the spotlight.
The playlist for Slater’s documentary is so chockablock with great songs that it may seem churlish to complain about the lack of this golden-oldie or that one. Nevertheless, it does seem more than a trifle odd that what might seem like a natural for inclusion — John Phillips’ “Twelve-Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon)” — is absent. Could that be due to the song’s implied criticism that there was a downside to the period this movie romanticizes?
And speaking of romanticizing: At several points in “Echo in the Canyon” — even during a snippet of the 2015 concert — Slater attempts to conjure the mid-‘60s zeitgeist with clips from the late-‘60s “Model Shop,” French filmmaker Jacques Demy’s L.A.-set drama of an about-to-be-drafted architect (Gary Lockwood) and his close encounter with a financially strapped French beauty (Anouk Aimee) who poses for cheesecake photos to raise money for her ticket back to Paris. Anyone who remembers (or tracks down) “Model Shop” will note that any 15 minutes of that movie contains more references to the Vietnam War than can be found in all of Slater’s largely apolitical documentary.
On the other hand, “Echo in the Canyon” maybe be arriving at precisely the right time to offer a different sort of history lesson: Seeing it might be useful period prep for under-35 audiences before they tackle Quentin Tarantino’s 1969-set “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”