Directed by Andrew Slater
Featuring Lou Adler, Fiona Apple, The Beach Boys, and more
Running time 1 hour 22 minutes
MPAA rating PG-13
By Ashley Jane
“I truly believe the power of music is undeniable. I truly believe it can change the world. I do. Small ways, but… I’m not letting this go.” – Graham Nash
While the other teens from my high school were spending their weekends going to parties, drinking Smirnoff Ice, and listening to, god I dunno, Nelly (??), I was hidden in my bedroom with my stack of records from Records On Wheels, writing horribly embarrassing yet lovingly earnest mini album reviews on notepad paper that I carefully taped to each cover. I adored music from the 1960s in all it’s varied microcosms. The British Invasion. The Greenwich Village scene. The Brill Building song-writing heavyweights. The great Motown vs. Stax debate. Brazil’s Tropicália movement. I could get away from my life and travel anywhere through music. But because of living in a little Northern Ontario city that is (okay, fine) occasionally a teensy bit cold and that sees (perhaps) the odd snowflake throughout the winter, I was most often, to quote ‘80s sweatshirts and bumper stickers everywhere, California Dreamin’.
Echo in the Canyon is a love letter to the mid-late ‘60s creative music scene that came out of Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles. There was no way I wasn’t going to watch this. This is a time and place in the history of music that I have often imagined myself living through. Just a few months ago, one of my best friends (also a Canadian girl) told me she was going on vacation to Laurel Canyon and the only possible response to this amazing news, via text message, was to quote our other other Canadian girl, Joni Mitchell, “Coloring the sunshine hours, they are the laaaaaadies of the canyonnnnn!” (try to imagine my Joni singing voice). SO like, I get excited by this stuff!
That being said, I’m quite glad I watched this alone. The level of absolutely passionate nerdiness that I exuded while doing so is almost shameful. With every *snap* of a ¼ inch cable plugging into a jangly Rickenbacker…with every scene of a hand fussing with console faders on a mixing board…with every aerial shot of the winding Canyon roads… with every split-second view of the Capitol Records building… my little musical heart (with its very old soul) felt like it really belonged in this world. Part of me knew I would love this documentary no matter what, while another part of me knew I would be critical of this documentary no matter what.
For just over 80 minutes, we go on a journey with Jakob Dylan as he travels these same roads and records in these same studios where so many popular songs of the era were born. Evidently, director Andrew Slater was influenced by the Jacques Demy film, Model Shop (which I just gotta see now), and I really love how he used footage from that film interspersed with modern footage of Jakob drivin’ along, listening to the sounds of the Canyon.
Before viewing this, Jakob Dylan reminded me of *those* Wallflowers songs that I couldn’t escape during the worst summer of my life. He made me think of unhappy looking portraits that people have of their great grandparents from the 1800s. Remember that music video where the dude looked plain ol bored as he covered Bowie’s Heroes while some dinosaur type creature that Hollywood called “Godzilla” destroyed all his surroundings? Look, he just seemed like a strange choice for a sort of narrator/interviewer to me. Yet he was oddly more smiley than I thought he would be. He didn’t say much. He sat back, drove a cool car, wore a lot of suede, played some bitchin’ songs, and listened as the veterans of the era told their stories. He did have a few lines that actually made me laugh out loud. In this film he had the wit of young Bob Dylan, but without the harsh bitterness. I really connected with ol Jakers when I saw the look of discomfort on his face as Michelle Phillips told some sexy times anecdotes – the moment was well captured by the camera, and everlasting in my heart. Bless you, Jakob.
Another element I really enjoyed were the musical numbers. There was a good mix of original recordings, new in-studio experimentations, and live performances by Jakob and some of his musical comrades who share a love of these songs (note: Beck, please tell me where you purchased all your clothing, and Chan Marshall: please join a band with me. Thank you both). Sometimes the covers really resonated with me (“I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” originally by The Beach Boys and “Never My Love” originally by The Association, especially), and even though they couldn’t match the magic of the originals, it was exciting to see other people as inspired by these songs as I am. These are songs I’ve been carrying in my heart for decades. I also just lovedddd every scene in a studio. Whoa. As a kid, I used to actually fur real daydream about recording in these particular famous studios with The Wrecking Crew and Phil Spector (you know…early non-murdery Phil Spector…). I really appreciated the attention to detail in some ways; however, I simply wouldn’t be myself if I didn’t discuss some disappointing omissions in this film.
I knew before I even began that I would be annoyed at the exclusion of my very favorite golden boy, the one and only, Van Dyke Parks. If you know me, you know of Van Dyke Parks. Because I’ve spoken about him to everyone I have ever met. While many famous stars of the era are coloring their hair and wowing moms all across America with performances of their old hits in lower keys, VDP is still toiling away as a true hardworking artist - still a California fella taking time to encourage and champion new artists (and wannabes like yours truly), and speaking out about causes that matter to him. He is a literal treasure. He has all the qualifications to be included in this documentary. He played some kind of role in almost everything mentioned. He wrote lyrics for Brian Wilson. He played on an album by The Byrds. He mayyyybe possiblyyyy named Buffalo Springfield. Most of all, his 1968 MA-A-A-ASTERPICE, Song Cycle, has not one, but TWO songs titled Laurel Canyon Blvd. Sigh. Missed opportunity there, folks. Also. Back to Joni. She has an album titled LADIES OF THE CANYON. She loved and was loved by almost every guy interviewed. Not a single mention. Hmph. *Ashley Jane gives a Joni Mitchell-esque look of disdain in the general direction of this film*
I felt like in a way, it was kind of a Cliffs Notes guide to this time period in music, focusing on the artistry rather than the politics. I didn’t learn anything new. Granted, I don’t think the typical viewer will have devoted as much time and effort to learning about the subject as I have (most likely on account of being too busy living actual lives, I suspect). And I do love The Mamas and The Papas and The Byrds and The Beach Boys and David Crosby’s capes and big ol’ hollowbody Gretsch guitars and the always adorable Ringo Starr. I am glad that all the people who worked so hard at making this love these things as well. It totally reignited my love for this music and got me to plug in my guitar and play lots of seventh chords (god help us all). This music is still fresh sounding and relevant for today, and who couldn’t use some sunny songs about love and acceptance in this political and ecological climate? If you’re a music fan, it’s definitely worth checking out.
*Bonus: Take yer dad to see it on Father’s Day! He will lose his shit when he sees who is there just for the closing credits, I promise you.