David Crosby strokes his beard and reminisces about the beginning of the Byrds. “After we started to get good with it,” he says, “Dylan showed up.”
His interviewer, Jakob Dylan, says dryly, “You’ll have to be more specific.”
Among the many things we learn in the new documentary Echo in the Canyon, one of them is that Jakob Dylan is a great celebrity interviewer. Now in his late 40s, he looks more like his iconic dad than ever, and conveys the same sense that he’s probably listening to what you’re saying but might also be thinking about Captain Ahab, or Alicia Keys, or the sandwich he had for lunch.
Andrew Slater’s film tracks the younger Dylan’s odyssey to capture the spirit and the stories of the classic Laurel Canyon sound of the 1960s. In addition to interviews with legends of that scene, the film also features new musical performances by gen-X stars, who cover the Beach Boys and the Byrds and the Mamas and the Papas both in the studio and onstage.
For better or for worse, Dylan doesn’t have a towering hill to climb here. Albums like Pet Sounds and Buffalo Springfield and If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears aren’t exactly underplayed or unsung. Nor is there any particular mystery about what brought the scene together: L.A. was just where you went if you wanted access to major labels, gorgeous studios, and good weed.
The Byrds were at the scene’s center, and Roger McGuinn is delighted to claim credit, plucking at a dreadnaught and telling Dylan about how the Beatles inspired him to juice up the folk revival. He played solo acoustic Beatles covers (more novel then than it is today, apparently) and, famously, covered Dylan with a rock band. Ringo Starr testifies to the Byrds’ reciprocal influence, as does Eric Clapton.
Everyone, of course, worshiped Brian Wilson. Sitting down himself with Dylan, Wilson demonstrates that while he may be a little discombobulated, he still remembers precise details about his music and the Beach Boys’ recording sessions. In a sort of panel discussion behind a coffee table of classic Laurel Canyon LPs, Dylan, Regina Spektor, Beck, and Cat Power struggle to explain just what it was that made Pet Sounds so seminal.
They don’t exactly nail it down — something about song length, something about a communal spirit? — so people like me whose job it is to explain music aren’t left fearing for our jobs. What most of us can’t do, though, is play and sing like Dylan and his famous friends can. Among the musicians who show up to cover Laurel Canyon classics with Dylan are Fiona Apple (the Beach Boys’ “In My Room”), Norah Jones (the Association’s “Never My Love”), and Jade Castrinos (the Mamas and the Papas’ “Go Where You Wanna Go,” which Michelle Phillips tells Dylan was her ex-husband John’s kiss-off song after she slept with bandmate Denny Doherty).
All the artists are in an appropriately sunny mood, happy to celebrate and/or be celebrated. Given how well-trod this territory is, the film is light on revelations and heavy on good vibes. Dylan’s covers don’t reinvent any wheels; only Apple makes much of an impact, singing Brian Wilson with a pained halt that feels raw and revelatory.
In a statement, Slater describes how the project grew from a tribute album (out now) to a full-fledged documentary. “Jakob had known many of these people his whole life, and they began telling him the stories behind the songs. And the stories we heard echoed all the things I thought I knew but never was able to articulate in a way that clearly captured what was happening at this fantastic creative moment in time.”
A deeper dive might have investigated the overwhelming whiteness of the scene and this project. Both folk and rock came out of African-American traditions, so how did folk rock remain so racially homogeneous? Therein lies a tale, but it’s not told here.
The shadow of the Vietnam War is also far from Echo in the Canyon, though it certainly loomed over the Canyon itself; one of the most electrifying vintage clips to make Slater’s cut is Buffalo Springfield’s segue from “For What It’s Worth” into “Mr. Soul,” with Stephen Stills stepping aside for Neil Young to jump off the amp where he’s sitting and rip open a hole into what feels like another dimension.
“I saw them, back in ’67 or ’68,” remembers Tom Petty, who poignantly sat for an interview shortly before his death. “They came to Gainesville and played with the Beach Boys. I never got over it. Just a really mind-blowing show, you know? It was like, that’s as good as it’s supposed to be…or maybe better.”
Echo in the Canyon opens today at the Uptown Theatre in Minneapolis.