Back in the 1960s, the introduction of The Beatles into the music scene basically turned all the rules of mainstream pop music on their head. Suddenly, a new age had dawned with artists like The Byrds, The Beach Boys and The Mommas and Poppas upending conventions with their blend of folk & rock music, extended runtimes for songs and more introspective lyrics. Many of these artists lived in a portion of Los Angeles called Laurel Canyon where, in their interactions together they each, managed to strengthen one another’s music. Influence in the form of the presence The Beatles kicked off this era of music so it shouldn’t be a surprise that influence would crop up again in the form of artists in this pocket of L.A. impacting one another’s music.
The Andrew Slater directed documentary Echo in the Canyon picks up in the modern day era as Jakob Dylan takes the audience on various interview segments with pivotal musicians of this famous music movement all while he puts together a tribute concert for this moment in music history. Echo in the Canyon quickly establishes a structure wherein Dylan will focus on one particular band (The Byrds or The Beach Boys, for instance) for a prolonged period of time, examine through interviews what that band brought to the table in terms of boundary-pushing elements of their music and then caps off the proceedings with footage of one of the bands songs being performed at the tribute concert.
This lends the film a steady sense of structure but it also means things get mildly repetitive quite quickly. It feels like too tidy of a structure for a documentary about bands that were anything but tidy in their works. Lack of imagination in terms of structure doesn’t mean the interview segments aren’t interesting though, in fact, these are the parts of Echo in the Canyon that turn out to be its strongest suit. Decades having passed since the 1960s, the artists being interviewed are all very frank about all the mayhem they got into in between making popular tunes in this period of time and that makes for some delightful tales.
This is especially true of David Crosby, who has an extremely welcome frank attitude about his unsavory behavior in The Byrds and delivers the most hysterical moment of the film when he lambasts the concept of tribute concerts right into the face of Jakob Dylan. Aside from the interview segments, Echo in the Canyon frequently works as a concert film in showing the likes of Beck and Fionna Apple performing various 1960s rock tunes at a tribute concert. None of the performances are really Earth-shattering covers of this iconic tunes, but they’re serviceable enough and footage of the singers talking about the lasting influence of songs from this era of history does have some mighty interesting moments.
If there’s one problem with Echo in the Canyon overall is that it feels too much like a surface-level love letter rather than an introspective documentary. Don’t get me wrong, albums like Pet Sounds are more than worthy of endless praise and it’s certainly not like the artists of this era are undeserving of applause for how they revolutionized American music. But my favorite parts of the documentary are the more complicated anecdotes from the likes of David Crosby or discussions of the darker underpinnings of Beach Boys songs like In My Room that make the legendary performers chronicled in Echo in the Canyon discernably human creatures. In those moments, you can see how such relatably complicated people could make songs that would resonate with the general public.
Too often though, Echo in the Canyon goes for interviews and discussions about this part of American music history that’s adequate but not all that insightful. There’s only so many times you can hear younger musicians like Dylan Jakob and Beck drop very generic compliments on the classic records they’ve listened to before one wishes we could just go back to the David Crosby interviews. Echo in the Canyon sometimes comes off like one of those glitzy star tours you can only find in Hollywood, where famous people are reduced to caricatures you can gawk at as they pass you by, but, to be fair, it does have its fair share of more interesting contemplations on that fateful decade where a bunch of rock musicians in Laurel Canyon changed American music forever.