echo in the canyon: rapturous music, but with blinders

Jakob Dylan and Tom Petty in ‘Echo in the Canyon.’

In the opening scene to the entertaining but short-sighted documentary “Echo in the Canyon,” Jakob Dylan and Tom Petty converse over the proper pronunciation of “Rickenbacker” – as in guitar, as in the instrument that set forth an electric lexicon that ignited the folk-rock music beaming out of Laurel Canyon in Southern California over 50 years ago.

Ever the efficient debater, Petty straps on the guitar and shoots off the familiar intro to The Byrds’ immortal version of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” ending any further discussion on the word’s proper usage. His victory complete, he then shuts the song down and slyly remarks to the camera, “You can’t afford the rest.”

Apparently, director Andrew Slater really couldn’t. The vintage music he chronicles in “Echo in the Canyon” is rapturous but his tribute to it is woefully incomplete.

The cornerstone bands he spotlights – The Byrds, The Beach Boys, The Mamas and the Papas and Buffalo Springfield – are all worthy and essential pioneers of a movement that grew out of Laurel Canyon meshing folk tradition with rock immediacy. Likewise, and without exception, the artists interviewed from that era (David Crosby, Roger McGuinn, Michelle Phillips, Graham Nash, Stephen Stills, producer Lou Adler and even a somewhat somnambulant Brian Wilson), their British contemporaries (Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr) and the immediate successors of that era (Petty, Jackson Browne) offer insightful commentary and, more importantly, a level of still-vital enthusiasm for the resulting music.

But “Echo in the Canyon” approaches its sense of time and place with blinders on. Its omissions – most notably, Joni Mitchell and Jackie DeShannon, neither of whom are even mentioned in the film – are considerable. The Doors, Love, John Mayall – the list of the overlooked is extensive. There is also no discussion whatsoever of the world outside of Laurel Canyon and how socially and politically in flames it was. Included is Buffalo Springfield performing its protest anthem “For What It’s Worth” on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” but “Echo in the Canyon” doesn’t approach at all what the song, and what much of the music from the slim time frame the film represents (roughly 1965-67), was actually protesting.

More disenchanting are performances and interviews overseen by Dylan with present day artists inspired by the ‘60s music (Regina Spektor, Beck, Cat Power, Norah Jones). The performances, especially from Dylan, are hazy and, frankly, lethargic. Only Malibu songstress Jade Castrinos offers any substantial vocal fire. The interview segments, while respectful of the era, are equally distant and lacking in any real artistic insight.

Still, the music “Echo in the Canyon” echoes with is remarkable, from the always chilling harmonies of the Mamas and the Papas’ classic “California Dreamin’” to the compositional genius of the “Pet Sounds”-era Beach Boys. It is also heartening to see the film give considerable homage to The Byrds, a band whose influence extended far, far outside of Laurel Canyon to shape the musical landscape of a generation in ways that are still underappreciated to this day. Similarly, hearing McGuinn and Crosby discuss the band’s innovation, as well as the dissent that led to the latter’s firing, is quite intriguing.

The most mercurial parting shot from “Echo in the Canyon” – aside from the obvious fact that Petty’s inclusion, filmed not long before his death in 2017, constitutes one of his final artistic statements – is studio footage of Neil Young blazing away alone on guitar during a new version of Crosby’s 1966 Byrds tune “What’s Happening?!?!” Not appearing, outside of vintage footage, anywhere else in the film, Young summons a wordless, electric torrent that speaks in far more succinct and scholarly terms about the lasting inspiration of the Laurel Canyon era than anything the new generation artists on hand have to say.

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