Jakob Dylan writes a cinematic love letter to the Laurel Canyon music scene

By Bliss Bowen

(left) Tom Petty gives his last film interview to Jakob Dylan in “Echo in the Canyon”, (right) David Crosby recalls the neighborly “social network” that made Laurel Canyon special

Jackson Browne, Eric Clapton, David Crosby, Roger McGuinn, Graham Nash, Michelle Phillips, John Sebastian, Ringo Starr, Stephen Stills and Brian Wilson all make vital appearances in “Echo in the Canyon,” Andrew Slater and Jakob Dylan’s big-hearted documentary about Laurel Canyon’s legendary music community circa 1964-1967. So do Tom Petty, in his last film interview, and Neil Young, in a fierce guitar solo signaling an angrier future.

The film explores that era’s widely beloved music, and an abundance of jangly classic recordings by the Beach Boys, the Beatles, Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds, Clapton and the Mamas and the Papas brighten the film.

But as Slater explains in an interview, the film is “more about the echo than the canyon” — an echo still reverberating throughout musician and songwriter communities of Laurel, Beachwood and Topanga Canyons and elsewhere. Spirited concert performances by Jakob Dylan and a crack house band with guests Fiona Apple, Beck, Jade Castrinos, Norah Jones, Cat Power and Regina Spektor demonstrate the music’s enduring allure for successive generations.

“The film celebrates Laurel Canyon in the beginning, before the onset of psychedelia and the singer-songwriter era that’s most associated with it, Joni Mitchell and the search for the individual,” says Slater, who considers that early period the “the age of innocence” of California rock. “But it’s really about the echo of those ideas and that creativity that gave birth to the music.”

That creative community has been as essential to Laurel Canyon’s myth as its hugely influential melodies and lyrics. As house band guitarist Fernando Perdomo notes, “What made Laurel Canyon cool is it wasn’t based around a club. Laurel Canyon was a social network. All these people would just gather at each other’s houses and say, ‘Hey, what are you up to? Listen to this song I just wrote.’”

“We were putting good poetry on the radio — pop radio,” David Crosby observes onscreen. Crosby contributes several choice bon mots (including the record-straightening admission that he was kicked out of the Byrds for “being an asshole,” not his notorious drug abuse). He, Stills and Nash figure in some of the most engaging scenes, recalling Laurel Canyon’s neighborly vibe. Some of the zestiest tales are told by Mamas and the Papas siren Michelle Phillips, the lone representative of Laurel Canyon’s women.

With music and a community this widely beloved, there are inevitable quibbles: Why not more women? Why no Love? But the film is quite well done, and achieves refreshing insights via Dylan’s camaraderie with his iconic interview subjects, who are more relaxed conversing with him onscreen than fielding questions from DocumentaryLand talking heads.

The most telling moment, one that crystallizes the film’s intent and the threads of community binding musicians across genera-
tions, occurs as Dylan quietly watches Phillips’ emotional response as she listens to playback of his recording of a Mamas and the Papas song. It is a sweet scene, warm and sincere, and their mutual gratitude expresses all that needs to be said.

“Echo in the Canyon” is screening at the Arclight Santa Monica, Arclight Culver City and The Landmark. Visit  echointhecanyon.com for more info.