Echo in the Canyon review – hopelessly lazy LA rock doc

Brian Wilson, Beck and Eric Clapton are among the star contributors, but the story of Laurel Canyon’s folk-rock scene remains a mystery – and where’s Joni?

This documentary about the folk-rock scene in mid-60s Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles, centres on an all-star tribute show, and would have made a neat free gift for ticket-holders. But with an arrogance unique to those insulated by fame and money, it gets put into the wider marketplace for music documentaries and comes up embarrassingly short.

It is the first film by Andrew Slater, who had a varied music career, including journalism, artist management and production, before becoming chief exec of Capitol Records. In 2007, he was ousted just months into a five-year contract with a $15m payout, and Echo in the Canyon feels like a twilight-years project for someone who already gets his DIY and gardening done for him.

Slater amasses a really impressive array of talking heads to reminisce about this sunlit corner of American song: Eric Clapton, Brian Wilson, David Crosby, Jackson Browne, the late Tom Petty and more. Beck, Cat Power and Regina Spektor gather in a modernist mansion to discuss the music’s impact; Jakob Dylan, Bob’s son, does the interviews and is a frontman of sorts.

The film would have benefited from a structuring voiceover by him, because after a good opening – the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn explaining why he and his peers deserted New York’s folk snobs for pastures new in the west – quickly loses any narrative arc and becomes a soup of celebrity reminiscences.

Admittedly, some of these are good value. It’s nice to see Wilson on such bright, perky form, rhapsodising about the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, and contrasting amusingly with Browne’s assessment of Wilson and his fellow Beach Boys: “Five guys wearing the same shirt holding one surfboard: I thought it was lame.” The engaging Stephen Stills has a puckish mien throughout, edged with bitterness when talking about Buffalo Springfield’s Expecting to Fly and bandmate Neil Young: “That song was a warning: I’m leaving. And I’m going to wait until it’s absolutely critically important to the survival of the band.” Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas vividly describes her infidelities, including one with bandmate Denny Doherty despite being married to her other bandmate, John Phillips: “I was a very busy girl,” she wickedly twinkles.

Slater avoids spending any more of his fortune on soundtrack rights by having Jakob et al perform the era’s songs themselves at that tribute show. It is a little self-indulgent to dwell on them for so long, and the arrangements are conservative, but the Mamas and the Papas’ Go Where You Wanna Go is spirited, and Fiona Apple inevitably adds character to It Won’t Be Wrong and In My Room.

Reminiscing … David Crosby talks to Jakob Dylan.
Reminiscing … David Crosby talks to Jakob Dylan. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy Stock Photo

The overall storytelling, though, is close to hopeless. It takes an hour before Laurel Canyon is really mentioned, and there is no deep inquiry into why so much creative energy rolled through it. You can’t even properly work out where it is, unless you know LA. Between the fun bits of gossip, there are boring details of audio engineering, and the stars are allowed to deliver lots of facile observations (Pet Sounds is good; musicians influence each other) and cliches: Graham Nash hammers the doors of perception closed with the revelation that music can change the world. Even the drug stories are pedestrian, and the film has the dismaying effect of making these musicians seem dull and mortal.

Its worst sin, though, is that there is no mention of the most Laurel Canyon-y musician of all: Joni Mitchell, whose Ladies of the Canyon is such an evocative document of life there. Nor any mention of Love, the Eagles, Jim Morrison or James Taylor; Carole King gets a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nod. And yet the Beatles, a band whose quality and influence have hardly gone unnoticed but who didn’t live there, get swathes of airtime, perhaps because of access to Ringo Starr, who offers little insight.

Slater didn’t need to get every last Canyon musician on camera, but to avoid mentioning many of them altogether is a total dereliction of duty. Mojo and Uncut magazines do this sort of nostalgic rock history with so much more specificity and impact – spend your money on some real storytellers.

• Echo in the Canyon is available on digital platforms from 8 June.


Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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