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Film Reviews

Echo in the Canyon

Published August 7, 2020
Jakob Dylan gets a Rickenbacker lesson from Tom Petty

It may seem a big call to suggest that one day historians will mention Laurel Canyon in the late 1960s alongside Vienna fin-de-siècle, and the Paris of the 1930s, but Graham Nash has no doubts. It’s even more startling to bracket Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys with Mozart, but Tom Petty manages this feat and keeps a straight face. He may, however, have the wrong composer. By his own admission, Wilson’s chief inspiration for California Girls was Johann Sebastian Bach.

By the end of this documentary, or after about 15 minutes, you’ll be ready to believe all the hyperbole. Andrew Salter’s Echo in the Canyon is an affectionate portrait of one of the most fertile moments in the history of popular music. The film is built around a tribute concert organised by Jakob Dylan, son of the recipient of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. Dylan is joined on stage by a range of contemporary artistes, including Beck, Regina Spektor, Fiona Apple, Jade Castrinos and Cat Power.

Excerpts from the live concert are mingled with rehearsals, discussions among performers, archival footage and – best of all – interviews with the musos who wrote and performed the original versions of the songs. Foremost among them: David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash (but not Neil Young); Michelle Phillips from The Mamas & The Papas, Roger McGuinn and Brian Wilson. Testifying as eye-witnesses are Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Jackson Browne, and the late Tom Petty.

For second-generation rock royalty, Jakob Dylan comes across as a remarkably unassuming character. Even though he gets to sing on most of the cover versions he seems modest to the point of introversion. Or perhaps that’s just the impression one gets from his lean, soulful, slightly morose appearance. As a performer, Dylan junior has at least one popular anthem to his name, the song, One Headlight, recorded with his band, the Wallflowers, in 1997.

Dylan was born in 1969, when much of the music featured in this documentary was being written and recorded. In that same year, French director, Jacques Demy, made Model Shop, his most obscure, and arguably, most underrated film. As I’ve never seen this movie I can’t comment, but the documentary is interspersed with grainy clips of Gary Lockwood driving around the streets of Los Angeles in pursuit of Anouk Aimée. At a glance it looks more like something by Michelangelo Antonioni. The appeal to Dylan and his friends was the soundtrack, by an L.A. band called Spirit, which wasn’t released until 2005! Oddly, nothing by Spirit is heard in this film.

The chief impression one takes away from Dylan’s encounters with the stars of the 1960s is the respect he has for the music of that era. Anecdotes about the Laurel Canyon musical scene are recounted by those who were in the bands. Michelle Phillips, the last survivor of The Mamas & The Papas, talks about the sexual tensions within the group. David Crosby reveals why he was sacked from the Byrds – “because I was an asshole”. Stephen Stills is still resentful that Neil Young timed his departure from Buffalo Springfield to coincide with an important slot on the Johnny Carson Show. George Harrison wrote Roger McGuinn a note telling him he’d borrowed the melody from The Bells of Rhymney for If I Needed Someone.

The two albums held in universal reverence by all the interviewees are the Beatles’ Sgt.Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966). There was a kind of secret relationship between these bands. Brian Wilson lists the Beatles’ Rubber Soul LP (1965) as one of his greatest influences, while the Beatles – according to producer, Lou Adler – drew inspiration from Pet Sounds.

The Laurel Canyon sound evolved out of the folk music scene. Those roots are clearly discernable in the vocal harmonies of the Byrds and The Mamas & The Papas, and the jangling sound of the Rickenbacker 12-string guitar. The next phase would be a lot louder and more discordant, as groups embraced prog rock and psychedelia. The film ends with a cover of Buffalo Springfield’s Expecting to Fly, an early warning that those folky harmonies were about to depart for the cosmos. “There you stood on the edge of your feather/Expecting to fly…”

One comes away from Echo in the Canyon feeling mellow about the good ole’ days in California, but it’s only half the story. This was also the era of Jim Morrison’s extreme antics, Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), and Charles Manson. The Beach Boys even recorded a song by Manson, who was a protégé of band member, Dennis Wilson.

There was a dark side to the era of peace, love and understanding that never makes it into this documentary, but perhaps that aspect was adequately dealt with last year in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. Pop music is, after all, the music of instant gratification. In two-and-a-half minutes you can squeeze a lot of feeling out of songs such as California Dreamin’ or God Only Knows. This film makes no attempt to be comprehensive, ignoring the problematic parts of the story and portraying Laurel Canyon as a little piece of musical paradise. Like all visions of paradise it’s almost certainly a myth, but the great appeal of myths is that they make reality so much more palatable.

 

 

Echo in the Canyon

Directed by Andrew Slater

Written by Eric Barrett & Andrew Slater

Starring Jakob Dylan, Tom Petty, David Crosby, Beck, Cat Power, Regina Spektor, Jade Castrinos, Roger McGuinn, Lou Adler, Michelle Phillips, Stephen Stills, Brian Wilson, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne

USA, rated MA 15+, 82 mins

 

 Published in the Australian Financial Review, 8 August, 2020