It could have only happened once; In this singular place; At that special time. However, the event isn’t unique. Said tagline has opened other music documentaries, like Standing in the Shadows of Motown, The Wrecking Crew, and Muscle Shoals. Music documentaries set during the 60’s made in other special moments and singular places. Nevertheless, the narrative still plays here because as director Andrew Slater posits in his new documentary Echo in the Canyon: telling the story of Laurel Canyon during the California folk-rock boom of the mid-60’s— these notes reverberate.
Echo in the Canyon opens on a poignant note, as Jakob Dylan and Tom Petty tour a guitar shop, perusing Rickenbackers. Dylan, lead-singer and songwriter of the Wallflowers and son of Folk legend Bob Dylan, acts as narrator, offering a steady low-key presence in his monotone voice. Petty holds a central place in the documentary; often recounting his childhood in Florida, hearing the music coming from California.
Slater and Dylan split the documentary into three interconnected threads: the concert, the rehearsals, and the history. Dylan, to commemorate these artists, decides to bring together current singers and musicians to perform the most famous songs of the era in a concert at the Orpheum in Los Angeles (2015). During the preparation, he holds roundtable discussions and practices with Regina Spektor, Beck, and Cat Power. He also meets with the famous artists and producers like Michelle Phillips, Brian Wilson, Stephen Stills, and Lou Adler who recorded these songs, in the studios they created them.
Echo in the Canyon cuts between these rehearsals and skips down memory lane to the concert at the Orpheum. Many of the live performances of songs such as ‘Never My Love’ and ‘California Dreamin” aren’t mere facsimiles, but wonderful renditions and tributes to these singular artists.
However, the bulk of the documentary centers around Laurel Canyon: the Los Angeles community by the strip where these creators lived within feet of each other. For these segments, Dylan and Slater interview David Crosby, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Roger McGuinn, Jackson Browne, Graham Nash, among others, to recount what that moment: from 1965-67, was like. They chart the history of folk rock in the area from the initial pushback from the folk purists to the new movement’s influence on Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The singers and musicians posit the singularity of the period, how they influenced and inspired each other to assimilate one another’s ideas to create a boom in music rarely seen since. Slater assists in hammering the point home by employing drone shots over the compacted canyon, and the insanely catchy hits playing in the “background” only strengthens his position.
As Echo in the Canyon reflects upon such cross pollinations and the influence of the 12-string guitar sound, one spectre seems “intentionally” avoided: Jakob’s father. Other than a brief mention by Crosby intimating that Bob Dylan went electric after hearing the Byrds play ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ in their folk-rock style, even though the album the song was recorded and released on: Bringing it All Back Home, is considered Bob Dylan’s first electric record, the folk giant is left out. Even when the lineage of Rubber Soul to Pet Sounds to Sgt. Pepper’s is discussed, Dylan influence on the former is also negated. There are plenty of documentaries on Dylan’s importance and it’d be odd if Jakob spent 82 minutes discussing his father, so this quibble is more of an observation, but it’s a fascinating thought to consider.
While Echo in the Canyon treads familiar ground with a now common frame, seeing Tom Petty back on screen, and these legends recount their best memories of a special moment in their lives makes Slater’s documentary a worthy and necessary chapter in the greatest decade of popular and rock music.