You always brought your guitar.
It started with Jacques Demy‘s Model Shop. Director Andrew Slater saw it, thought about the era depicted (it was released in 1968), and got that Laurel Canyon sound—where so many of the folk-to-rock transitional bands lived—stuck in his brain. This shouldn’t be surprising considering Demy recruited Spirit to create a soundtrack (what should be their third album) that captured this exact vibe before the film’s box office failure made it so the material wouldn’t see the light of day until 2005. One thing apparently led to another as Jakob Dylan (whose father Bob was influenced by this scene to go electric) was recruited to serve as musical conduit en route to honoring the likes of The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, The Mamas and the Papas, and more.
Echo In the Canyon is thus a making of feature that sheds light on the brand new arrangements Dylan and a slew of special guests (Fiona Apple, Norah Jones, Beck, Cat Power, Regina Spektor, and Jade Castrinos) have recorded to bring attention back onto this monumentally influential period of rock and roll history. They both hold sessions in studio and perform a concert with footage of Model Shop and the bands they’re covering behind them. The music is of course great with their renditions uniquely different in ways that provide them purpose beyond mere adulation. Eventually, however, you must realize that going through all this trouble to reimagine what happened five decades ago can only be augmented by bringing those players on-screen to provide it proper context too.
This to me is the film’s strongest aspect because we get anecdotes from David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Roger McGuinn, Michelle Phillips, and Brian Wilson; insight from contemporaries Graham Nash, Ringo Starr, and Eric Clapton; and an outsider’s perspective from those who watched it and were inspired like Jackson Browne and Tom Petty. Add a quiet quartet of Specktor, Dylan, Beck, and Cat Power talking about records and how that sound got their respective creative juices flowing while growing up in the 80s and 90s and there’s a ton of information jammed into Slater’s 82-minute runtime. While every portion (interwoven to move back and forth between interviews, recordings, and the concert) has its highlights, nothing compares to these first-hand accounts of those with a half-century of hindsight.
Honestly, that would have been the better direction to take for the duration because it can be jarring to hear them speak about their songs only to cut to the “youngsters” delivering their version. That’s not to say there isn’t also archival footage of these legends performing on television shows. There’s plenty of that too. It’s simply distracting to always shift gears and make it seem as though what Dylan and company are doing is just as important to the whole as their words. The way Slater constantly gives Jakob reaction shots to stare blankly at his interviewees is also weird because he’s too reserved to match their level of excitement while reminiscing. It’s tough not to laugh sometimes since staying on the subject was the logical choice.
“Subject” is subjective I guess when you’re talking about a film with two very different purposes. Are the old-timers explaining what it was like to live in Laurel Canyon, work with Lou Adler, and pop over to each other’s houses to jam and do drugs the main point? Or is it Jakob Dylan’s quest to bridge past and present via his own talents? I’d argue it’s the latter and that’s why Echo In the Canyon can’t reach its true potential as a whole greater than its parts. Watching him perform (because even those moments shown during off-the-cuff rehearsals contain very little process-oriented content) can’t match the intrigue his interviews supply. Even though this tribute album is the impetus for everything, it feels like transitional filler for the rest.
Luckily every brief sojourn onto the stage means another band will be given its turn in the spotlight. When we watch Dylan sing The Byrds after hearing Crosby and McGuinn (always with guitar to play a few relevant chords), we know we’re about to move towards Phillips’ and The Mamas and the Papas, Stills and Buffalo Springfield, or Wilson and The Beach Boys. To also know we’ll receive talk about influences going beyond the tangential and into full-on cribbing only raises our excitement levels before having them reset back to zero upon being whisked away back to that concert. It’s a roller coaster of emotion that ultimately proves how incomparable those originals are. So while today’s artists honoring them reinforces this truth, it’s perhaps not in the way they intended.
courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment