Muslims have Mecca, Jews have the Wailing Wall and folk-rock aficionados have Laurel Canyon, the Los Angeles neighborhood that gave birth to jangling 12-string guitars and the heavenly harmonies of The Byrds, The Beach Boys, Buffalo Springfield, CSN and The Mamas and the Papas, to name a few. It’s also where, according to Andrew Slater’s note-worthy “Echo in the Canyon,” Bob Dylan found the inspiration to go electric. So, it’s no surprise that Bob’s son, Jakob, owns more than a passing fancy with the hills that became a motherlode of solid-gold for almost a decade beginning in 1965.
He returns there, camera in tow, seeking the input of such luminous alumni as Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Michelle Phillips, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne and John Sebastian in preparation for a 50th-anniversary tribute concert featuring Beck, Regina Spektor, Norah Jones and Fiona Apple. It begins where the movement began, with McGuinn’s exquisite opening chords to The Byrd’s “Turn, Turn, Turn,” a Pete Seeger song the group turned, turned, turned into an electrifying electric-folk smash.
It planted the seed, and like a moth to a flame, it drew every poet with a guitar to Laurel Canyon, a bucolic neighborhood just a hop and skip from the Sunset Strip. Soon, everyone was knocking on each other’s door to jam and create. And, boy, did they create: “Monday, Monday,” “California Dreamin’,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “For What It’s Worth” and perhaps the finest American album ever, Brian Wilson’s masterful “Pet Sounds.” They’re all here along with a cache of vintage clips to back up everything the veterans have to say in looking back on the prime of their youth.
They’re (depressingly) much older now, particularly Crosby, but no less fascinating in their reminiscences. But Slater’s fatal mistake is making Jakob Dylan so much the focus that it becomes a movie more about him than the performers he’s honoring. And instead of hearing the original hits, we hear the covers of them by Jakob and his musician pals who pale by comparison. The team of FIVE editors does Slater no favors, either. The movie is choppy and shapeless with no coherent structure, a malady underscored by the inclusion of random clips from Jacques Demy’s 1969 flick “Model Shop,” which we’re told is a reflection of the era’s time and place. It’s not.
Still, “Echo in the Canyon” is eminently watchable because of those timeless songs and the fun - and funny - anecdotes by such colorful raconteurs as Phillips, Wilson, Crosby, Stills and Nash, plus Brit legends Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr, who also resided from time to time in the canyon. The tunes are great, the stories are great, but Jakob Dylan keeps getting in the way, stealing the spotlight to the point of frustration. But even he can’t dim the poignancy of seeing and hearing the man most influenced by the “California Sound,” Tom Petty, in what would prove to be his final interview.
Again, why isn’t there more of him, perhaps the finest historian on the Laurel Canyon movement? At least we get to hear Petty school us in the correct pronunciation of those classic 12-string guitars McGuinn made famous: the Rickenbacker. It’s RickenBACKer, not RickenBOCHer, by the way. It’s a small moment, but becomes a lasting one once Petty picks up one of those beauties and starts impromptu strumming a few chords, then stopping to remind us that if you want more playing, it will cost you a price you cannot afford. He’s right, you know. Like the Laurel Canyon sound, Tom Petty is eternal and priceless.
Al Alexander may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Echo in the Canyon”
A documentary by Andrew Slater featuring Roger McGuinn, Jackson Brown, Michelle Phillips, David Crosby and Jakob Dylan.
(PG-13 for drug references and some suggestive content.)