The biggest counter-culture movement in modern history arguably occurred in the 1960s, both as a society and in pop culture. As most who lived during that decade or have extensively researched it can attest to, though, it was also a period that ended on a sour note, thanks to the violence and addiction issues that ran rampant during that time. Still, even with the sour notes, all the flower power, hippy-dippy clichés that the ’60s were known for are also accurate. Much of those ’60s hippie tropes can be attributed to musicians all across the West Coast – most famously the Haight-Ashbury sector of San Francisco – and the Laurel Canyon district in Los Angeles. The recent rockumentary, “Echo in the Canyon,” the documentary brainchild of musician Jakob Dylan and record producer/label executive Andrew Slater, narrows its focus on Laurel Canyon.
The British Invasion and the Greenwich Village folk scene were the most impactful musical movements of the 20th century, at least for the western world. As music fans have noted over the years, though, the tunes emerging from the Laurel Canyon region of L.A. had their influence on pop, rock and folk, too, and that’s primarily what the film focuses on. Laurel Canyon was at the time a modest, quaintly bohemian neighborhood right outside Hollywood, and it became popular with many recognizable rock stars somewhere between 1965-67. Hillside residents included John & Michelle Phillips of the Mamas & the Papas, David Crosby of the Byrds and CSN(Y), Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield and CSN(Y), Peter Tork of the Monkees, and John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful.
“Echo in the Canyon” delivers Slater as the filmmaker and Dylan as the host of the feature. Dylan is, of course, the frontman of the hit alt-rock band the Wallflowers in real life, and also the son of Bob Dylan himself. He’s not only is our central point of view for the documentary as he conducts interviews with classic rockers, he also shares his own insights, along with his 1990s and 2000s musical peers, like Beck, Fiona Apple, Cat Power, Regina Spektor, and Josh Homme. Jakob and his pals also provide a series of full-length concerts and a soundtrack LP of covers including the Byrds’ “The Bells of Rhymney,” the Mamas & the Papas’ “Go Where You Wanna Go,” the Beach Boys’ “In My Room,” the Turtles’ “You Showed Me,” and the Monkees’ “She.”
As a longtime classic rock fan and 1960s aficionado, Slater’s documentary is enjoyable, given that we get to hear the memories of the time period from the stars themselves. It’s also a treat to hear both the original recordings and live covers of these iconic songs, and the stories behind the songs and their significance. Slater and Dylan even nailed down commentary on hanging around the Canyon locals from Brian Wilson and Ringo Starr (and because every piece on ’60s music is obliged to mention “Pet Sounds” and “Sgt. Pepper’s”).
But as enjoyable as it is, I tried to imagine what viewing the doc would be like for someone new to the music genre, and there were obvious gaps. There isn’t much back story given on the bands, so unless you go into the film already aware of their histories, it can seem disjointed. The narrative is also a bit basic and hollow. Sure, we get the tales from the rock stars themselves, but I still felt like I had already heard most of them before. I ended up enjoying the movie anyway, though, mainly because the music is that good and I’m such a fan of that era. Seeing Jakob, Beck, and Regina browse through vintage records of “Rubber Soul,” “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” “Buffalo Springfield Again,” and ‘More of the Monkees’ was a “Stars, they’re just like us!” moment. Rock music fans will probably appreciate “Echo in the Canyon” – especially because of the soundtrack. But for the average film viewer, it might not jibe.