There are plenty of great tunes in “Echo in the Canyon,” a documentary that pays homage to the electric pop-music scene that emerged from the Laurel Canyon neighborhood of Los Angeles in the mid-1960s. But by the end of the film, the soundtrack feels like a mix tape that pairs classic recordings with uninspired cover versions of the same songs.
Which would you rather hear?
First-time director Andrew Slater — a former chief executive of Capitol Records — tells the story through vintage clips, as well as contemporary interviews conducted by musician Jakob Dylan (the film’s executive producer and Bob’s son). These new interviews feature reminiscences by people central to the scene, such as David Crosby and Stephen Stills. We also hear from later generations of rockers who drew from their example. The late Tom Petty, for instance, appears in his final on-camera interview.
Petty is one of the film’s more informative subjects, explaining the importance of the 12-string Rickenbacker guitar that George Harrison played with the Beatles. Harrison’s chiming hooks inspired Roger McGuinn of the Byrds; after hearing the folk-like chord progressions of the Fab Four, McGuinn and his bandmates decided they would soup up “old folk songs with a Beatle beat.”
It’s fascinating to listen to musical legends talk about what fueled their craft, whether it’s the shuffle beat that the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson credits to Johann Sebastian Bach, or the romantic entanglements that were reflected in the lyrics of the Mamas and the Papas. The movie makes a strong case that there was a special musical potency to this largely residential neighborhood.
But the problem with the film lies in the “echo” of its title, which refers to the group of younger musicians who gather for a tribute concert that Slater and Dylan organized. In footage from this 2015 show, Dylan performs covers of the Byrds’ “It Won’t Be Wrong,” the Beach Boys’ “In My Room” and other pop classics — assisted by a lineup that includes Beck, Cat Power and Fiona Apple.
As any fan of these contemporary artists will tell you, their strength is in their distinctive voices. This all-star lineup doesn’t make anything new out of these great, old songs, and the supergroup lacks the kind of vocal chemistry to sing in harmony, which was a huge part of what made the original recordings so powerful.
What’s more, “Echo” leaves out some crucial stories. The omission of the bands Love and the Doors, for example — part of the Laurel Canyon scene of the 1960s — may be understandable. After all, their more psychedelic sounds don’t fit neatly into the film’s signature folk-rock aesthetic. But what about Joni Mitchell? There’s also no mention of the Wrecking Crew, the collective of session musicians who played on some of the Byrds’ and Beach Boys’ biggest hits (and who were the subject of an excellent 2008 documentary). “Echo” recalls a fertile era in the history of American pop music. But all too often, it wanders out of the very canyon that defines it.
What “Echo in the Canyon” • 2½ stars out of four • Run time 1:22 • Rating PG-13 • Content Drug references and some suggestive material