Every time a pop musician makes an exasperating political comment, a piece of the culture fractures. Thankfully Echo in the Canyon steers clear of political commentary even though its subject — 1960s folk-rock, the pop genre that started with the group The Byrds and extended to other California-based pop musicians — is considered a peak moment of pop-music political consciousness.
Jakob Dylan (son of the bard) and former Capitol Records exec Andrew Slater made the film as background to their 2015 concert that celebrated the 50th anniversary of folk-rock. The genre was created by a coterie of white counterculture musicians drawn to Laurel Canyon, a hilly, wooded section of Los Angeles, where they were close to Sunset Strip clubs yet still got the feel of living in the country.
That history has sociological significance, but Jakob and Slater resist the PBS and foundation-grant tendency to make a doc that exploits politics as its substance. (It’s nearly impossible to find a recent documentary that doesn’t at some point name-check Obama as proof of the makers’ bona fides.) Echo in the Canyon pays tribute to Laurel Canyon creativity and social license from a Millennial perspective that is politically neutral. And that makes it unique.
Both Jakob and Slater cite a remarkable inspiration: Jacques Demy’s 1969 film Model Shop, an unsuspected time capsule of the folk-rock era’s look, feel, and musical vibe, and of Laurel Canyon itself. Clips from Model Shop intersperse interviews with Roger McGuinn of The Byrds, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Jackson Browne, Tom Petty, and Michelle Phillips, while Model Shop extracts complement the concert scenes performed by Jakob and such contemporaries as Beck, Cat Power, and Fiona Apple.
Whereas Martin Scorsese’s 1978 The Last Waltz theatricalized rootsy folk-rock based on the blues, the music in Echo in the Canyon was Beatles-influenced — when McGuinn first dared to play “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in folk clubs. This justifies the film’s transcontinental approach.
Demy’s transcontinental Model Shop culminated a trilogy that began with Lola and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Demy’s search for a romantic ideal led to California, where a young American (Gary Lockwood) also seeks to fulfill a spiritual dream (embodied by Anouk Aimée’s Lola).
Model Shop’s account of a spiritual quest is as substantial as Scorsese’s anthropology in The Last Waltz — and the Demy influence takes us deeper into personal muses and artistic aspirations. It is why that music is still “infectious,” as Jackson Browne affirms to Jakob. What Regina Spektor struggles to describe in Echo in the Canyon as “psychedelic” is the genre’s introspection — the personal figuring-out that saves the music from facile politics.
Perhaps this explains why Jakob’s Millennial peers are fascinated by that Rickenbacker guitar-based sound and the close vocal harmonies of groups such as Crosby, Stills & Nash, Buffalo Springfield, and The Mamas and the Papas. The personal confessions that Crosby and Michelle Phillips vouchsafe through stories about “Triad,” “Goin’ Back,” and “Go Where You Want to Go” (which eventually led to Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way”) share Demy’s erotic intimacy.
It has become standard to think back on the Sixties for political instruction, but Jakob’s musical commitment (“pass it on to a new generation, and keep the echoes of that music going”) avoids political clichés and partisan fracturing.
One Model Shop clip prefiguring the counterculture imagery in Five Easy Pieces reminds us that what once was counterculture has become the dominant culture. And yet there’s a conservative aspect to Jakob and Slater’s curatorship. Sure, the artists they celebrate were famously liberal, but Echo in the Canyon prizes class opportunity and artistic consciousness. It promises that musicians who stay true to their muse don’t then have to make exasperating soundbites.