Laurel Canyon, a nexus of 60s counterculture located in the Hollywood Hills, was home to a generation of singer-songwriters who shaped the music that dominated the baby boomer heyday of commercial radio. “It was the one place you could live that was the antithesis of the plastic straight world you saw on television,” says longtime resident Jackson Browne. “It was always a hangout for bohemians,” says Mamas and Papas singer Michele Phillips and now it is the subject of an entertaining documentary, “Echo in the Canyon.”
The movie’s framework comes from a 2015 tribute concert featuring songs made famous by Laurel Canyon acts like Buffalo Springfield, the Mamas and the Papas and the Beach Boys. “The music that came out of the Laurel Canyon scene in the 60’s was not only inspiring to other bands at that time,” says Jakob Dylan, “but also became inspiring to my generation. Tonight is an opportunity, like folk music, to pass it on to a new generation and keep the echoes of that music going.”
Between live performances from artists like Beck, Fiona Apple, Regina Spektor and Norah Jones, Dylan interviews a who’s who of California Sound-era superstars like David Crosby and Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield’s Stephen Stills, Michelle Phillips, producer Lou Adler and Brian Wilson, about whom Tom Petty, in his last filmed interview, says, “I don’t see anything in Mozart that is better than Brian Wilson.” Other accounts of those times come from John Sebastian and Eric Clapton.
They often say if you can remember the 60s you weren’t really there, but the talking heads here seem to have no trouble recalling the details of the Canyon’s early days. Adler remembers exactly where the musicians sat during the Mamas and the Papas’s first recording session and Ringo Starr says the Byrds turned the Beatles on to a “hallucinogenic situation” when they first met. A mix of contemporary sounds and nostalgia, it paints an apolitical (you would never know that Vietnam was raging during the time documented) picture of a creative collaboration that saw artists competing with one another to expand the limits of what rock music could be. “You can listen to the records,” says Stephen Stills, “and you can hear the cross-pollination.”
Ultimately this isn’t a history of a generation but an enjoyable look at a brief period that still echoes in the imaginations and ears of many fans. “These records came like an avalanche,” Beck says of LPs like “Pet Sounds,” “and there was nothing like them before.”