People who grew up in the '60s know that music used to be better. People who grew up with boy bands and Auto-Tune can quibble, but the debate is an easy one to settle: Watch Echo in the Canyon. Case closed.
Directed by Andrew Slater and hosted by Jakob Dylan, the documentary offers an affectionate look back at the creative community that magically sprang up in Los Angeles' Laurel Canyon around 1965 and in a few years produced some of the most groundbreaking, influential music of all time. It also offers Tom Petty's final film interview.
In the opening scene, Petty and Dylan discuss the proper pronunciation of "Rickenbacker" in a hipster guitar shop. The late singer-songwriter picks up a 12-string and strums a few jangly chords. The result is instantly recognizable as the signature sound of the Byrds — or, rather, of Roger McGuinn. As we're soon reminded by a who's who of rock royalty, that sound had a seismic impact.
The genesis of this amiably ambling project was a 2015 concert at LA's Orpheum Theatre. Slater, a former rock manager and record executive, teamed up with Wallflowers founder Dylan to stage a celebration of the Canyon scene's 50th anniversary. The twist was that, rather than put on an oldies show, they'd recruit contemporary artists and let them reinterpret songs from that golden era. The movie cuts among performances from that night, archival footage of the bands and Dylan's interviews with surviving members.
These include McGuinn and David Crosby, who, while both Byrds, now look as though they're from different eras. McGuinn evidently stumbled upon the secret to eternal youth in his travels. Speaking of which, we're treated to home-movie footage he shot of the group's first trip to England, along with accounts of meeting the Beatles, becoming chummy and eventually being semi-plagiarized. We learn George Harrison sent McGuinn a card admitting that the Byrds' version of "The Bells of Rhymney" was the basis for "If I Needed Someone."
When it comes to impacting the Fabs, the big story is, of course, the transatlantic symbiosis between the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Wisely, Dylan invites Brian Wilson to tell it. Among the tidbits the picture brings to light is that producer Lou Adler (also interviewed) visited the Beatles with an acetate of Pet Sounds prior to its release. As Adler and Crosby attest, one led indisputably to the other. "Imagine influencing the Beatles," muses Petty.
Representing this century in the doc are artists such as Cat Power, Jade Castrinos, Beck and Norah Jones. I'm not sure what happened with Jones. She disappears mid-"Never My Love" (by the Association). And Beck makes surprisingly minor contributions both musically and with his commentary. (A chunk of the movie features the kids discussing vintage discs in a swanky hipster pad.) More than compensating for any shortcomings on their part, however, are Dylan, who proves an agreeably laconic master of ceremonies as well as an engaging performer, and Castrinos. I wasn't familiar with her, but I've been unable to get her rousing rendition of the Mamas and the Papas' "Go Where You Wanna Go" out of my head.
Considering that it comes down to one generation paying its respects to members of a preceding one, Echo in the Canyon is both perceptive and powerfully poignant. It's heartening to watch these present-day stars acknowledge that long ago in a galaxy far away, others burned so memorably and so brightly.