Echo in the Canyon refers to a hilly Los Angeles neighborhood whose winding roads link Sunset Boulevard to the San Fernando Valley, and whose population in the mid-1960s included key figures in the emerging pop-folk-rock scene. Laurel Canyon was a place, says David Crosby, then of the Byrds, where you could be close to a city yet feel out in the country; where instead of clubs, people popped into each other’s homes for impromptu music sessions, trading ideas and inspiration. The community provided crucial proximity to the burgeoning music industry in LA, which was wresting influence from New York and increasingly provided a conduit to record deals and airplay. Suddenly, careers were taking off. “We knew the Byrds,” Michelle Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas recalls with a laugh. “They were our friends. If they had a hit record, anyone could have one!” The scene was the pop-music equivalent, the film proposes, to the literary ferment of Paris in the 1920s and ’30s.
Directed by longtime music executive Andrew Slater, and featuring Jakob Dylan as a kind of master of ceremonies, the documentary studies the transformative energies of the LA music scene during those years. Echo interviews many of the chief players from that time and place, along with younger musicians, including Beck, Regina Spektor, Cat Power, and Norah Jones, who ponder the era’s significance, discuss its music, and perform some of the songs in a Laurel Canyon tribute concert.
The transformation that occurred when folk music met the electric guitar is often traced to Bob Dylan and the 1965 Newport Jazz Festival (a subject about which, along with anything else to do with his father, Jakob Dylan is notably silent). But Echo attributes it to Southern California. The theme is announced explicitly by The Mamas and the Papas’ smash hit, “California Dreamin’,” which redirects our attention from the brown leaves and gray sky of Manhattan to the warm and sunny left coast. Musically, the shift is nicely encapsulated in Echo by a segue from Pete Seeger performing “The Bells of Rhymney” before a silent churchlike audience of folk devotees, to the Byrds doing their version of the same song, the austere melody enlivened by Roger McGuinn’s jangling guitar riff on his twelve-string Rickenbacker.
With such deft studies, Echo makes us present at the creation of folk rock. It focuses particularly on the four B’s: the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and the Beach Boys, all acting partly in response to the Beatles. The process involved what both Stephen Stills and Ringo Starr refer to as “cross-pollination,” especially across the Atlantic—the way in which the Byrds’ recording of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” for instance, influenced Rubber Soul, and then (via Brian Wilson, who was wowed by it), Pet Sounds—which, lobbed back into the Beatles’ court, in turn helped shape the huge smash of Sgt. Pepper. It was the kind of musical borrowing that stops short of stealing. For instance, George Harrison’s 1965 Rubber Soul song “If I Needed Someone” owes a huge debt to McGuinn’s version of “The Bells of Rhymney”—first recorded, as we have seen, by Seeger, with lyrics taken from a poem written by the Welsh poet Idris Davies way back in 1938, but which McGuinn first heard in a haunting cover by Judy Collins. Given such a complex pedigree, McGuinn wasn’t bothered when a notably similar guitar sequence emerged in the Beatles’ song. Besides, when the song came out, Harrison politely sent McGuinn a note of thanks. People were nicer then.
As for the Beach Boys, they and their trademark surfer pop—garage-band rock-and-roll adorned with mellifluous vocals—might at first glance seem like an outlier in this company. Interviewed by Jakob Dylan, Jackson Browne comments wryly that “To me, at first, The Beach Boys was just four guys wearing the same striped shirt and carrying a surfboard. I thought it was lame.” Then he listened to Pet Sounds and changed his mind. With its innovative and complex orchestrations, and its norm-busting song lengths, Pet Sounds figures as a leitmotif of genius in Echo, drawing lavish comparisons (Bach, Mozart), and a broadly shared awe at Wilson’s gifts as a composer; in the estimation of just about everyone interviewed here, it was the most powerfully influential album of its era.
Echo in the Canyon exudes a leisurely nostalgia, and has a low-key, wandering quality. Outtakes from the 1968 film Model Shop, French director Jacques Demy’s love song to LA, are intercut with scenes of Jakob Dylan visiting old recording studios, and Dylan and pals sitting around in someone’s living room, browsing through a big pile of records, discussing album covers, extolling the glories of their musical forebears. The film is oddly constructed so that while Dylan appears to be interviewing people, more often than not, we don’t get to hear his questions, only their answers—as Dylan nods sagely and is quietly impressed. It’s fascinating; at fifty (!) Jakob Dylan strongly resembles his father, yet he possesses all the conventional social and conversational graces that Bob Dylan long ago spurned, if he ever had them. There’s not a touch of anything cryptic or snarky to Dylan fils; he’s a genial host—he’s so normal!—and does a fine job on vocals with many of the songs, especially “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” from Pet Sounds.
Curiously, while Crosby, Stills, and Graham Nash all contribute lengthy interviews, Neil Young is absent, until the closing credits, where he is shown—not back then, but today—alone in a studio, playing an odd, stomping version of “Expecting to Fly,” the dreamy 1968 Buffalo Springfield song (and Young composition) that Stills, looking back, describes as a de facto announcement of Young’s leaving the band. Echo construes the song as a signpost of a new and psychedelic impulse in pop music, one that effectively puts an end to the folk-rock moment the film so enjoyably captures.