Review: ‘Echo In the Canyon’

In the late 60’s and early 70’s, it took a group of filmmakers from across the pond to synthesize the airy, radically charged golden beauty of Hollywood (and Los Angeles in general) onto the big screen, such as Jacques Deray, with his wonderful crime film The Outside Man (1972), John Boorman and his architecturally magnificent Point Blank (1967), and especially Jacques Demy, with Model Shop (1969).

All of these films looked at California with fresh eyes. Perhaps because the actual filmmakers living and working in Hollywood were far too close to the burgeoning center of it all to translate the tempo and mood of the era proficiently, this diverse group of English and Frenchmen had the advantage because they’d been studying and obsessing over the Hollywood product for decades. It’s only natural that when they got the chance to actually film there, their mirrored perspective enabled them to create a fairy-tale realism sorely lacking by anyone else.

So goes the inspiration for Andrew Slater’s new documentary, Echo In the Canyon. After seeing Model Shop a few years ago, the ex-Capitol Records CEO became captivated by that film’s time-capsule representation of late 60’s Los Angeles …. just before the Summer of Love gave way to the August of Discontent. Choosing to explore the explosion of the California sound brought about by bands like The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, The Beach Boys and the Mamas and the Papas, Echo In the Canyon is a wistful and entertaining jaunt down memory lane. Or perhaps a jaunt down Laurel Canyon, since all of these bands made their home within the few square miles in this exclusive hippie area. As one commentator says, it feels like a moment in history not unlike that of France in the 30’s or Berlin at the turn of the century for their overflowing melting pot of close-knit talent existing in one specific time and place.

Bracketed around the usual history lesson, though, Slater’s film toggles back and forth between past and present as a multitude of modern artists as diverse as Fiona Apple, Beck, Regina Spektor and Norah Jones put on a commemorative show at the Orpheum Theater where they cover landmark songs from all the bands mentioned.

Outside of the show, Echo In the Canyon has the virtue of assembling a number of musical greats from Eric Clapton to Ringo Starr to Tom Petty, reflecting on the past with humor, fond reverie and, at times, biting honesty such as when David Crosby says he wasn’t kicked out of The Byrds because of his risque song “Triad,” but simply because he was being an asshole. Not too far removed from the past where all the individuals have passed on, but just long enough for everyone to have made peace with their youthful infidelities and jealousies, Echo In the Canyon would succeed just as a series of interviews.

But what really makes the film tick is the continued re-visiting of modern artists covering the greats. Their outright love and introspective thoughts about the California sound (like Regina Spektor saying the music is like a dream or subconscious poetry) is infectious. Slater also has a good guide to the musical stars in the form of Wallflowers singer Jakob Dylan, whose voice and laconic eyes clearly denote his musical legacy as son of the great Bob Dylan. Who else could stroll into a guitar shop with Tom Petty (filmed before his death in late 2017) and casually handle a number of guitars, explaining why one model is infinitely better than the next?

It’s these little nuggets of insider information, as well as its loving tribute to the giants of the past, that makes Echo In the Canyon so much fun. It may not be the exhaustive history of the musical scene we fully deserve about the mid-60’s, but it has to be respected because it’s coming from the very mouths of those who participated in it.

Echo In the Canyon opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, June 7 at the Angelika Film Centers in Dallas and Plano.