The Brits may have had their rock invasion, but in the ’60s California had its sun-dappled version, headquartered in the wooded slopes and curling roads of Laurel Canyon, where a singular collection of musicians from all over — drawn by a combination of hilly seclusion and proximity to Hollywood recording studios — fostered an era-defining vibe of collaboration, freedom and poetic inspiration.
That mythic hotbed of folk/rock/pop hybridization — which in its harmonic, jangly mid-decade heyday was exemplified by bands like the Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, Buffalo Springfield, and tangentially the Beach Boys — is now the altar at which the engagingly tune-filled documentary “Echo in the Canyon” worships. Directed by music industry veteran Andrew Slater, with rock scion Jakob Dylan as executive producer and on-camera tour guide, “Echo” looks to hook you all over again to the songs, personalities and stories of that time, built around a same-named 2015 tribute concert at L.A.’s downtown Orpheum Theatre headlined by Dylan, and featuring Regina Spektor, Fiona Apple, Cat Power, Jade and Beck putting their spin on California Sound standbys “Monday Monday,” “Wild Mountain Thyme,” “In My Room” and others.
It’s the OG appearances, though, whether in new interviews with Dylan or recording studio footage from sessions for the accompanying soundtrack, that best sell the nostalgia of this unfussy, enjoyable film: wasn’t-that-a-time anecdotes from the serenely authorial Roger McGuinn, a boasting David Crosby, your favorite frisky aunt Michelle Phillips, and further color from mainstays Brian Wilson, Stephen Stills, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Graham Nash and producer Lou Adler. Home movies and archival clips do their part in painting the picture, as does the occasional snippet from Jacques Demy’s fascinating artifact of late ’60s Southern California, “Model Shop,” although Slater’s decision to cut in modern-day footage of Jakob Dylan in peacoat and shades wandering the same locations strains for a reach-across-time hipness.
The anecdotes are a mix of A-side gold and B-side eccentric, whether detailing how the songs often arose from invention and friendly theft, or how egos and ideals often tested band cohesion and, in the case of Phillips’ marriage within the Mamas, relationship fidelity. But hey, it inspired a song! (“Go Where You Wanna Go.”) A comparison of recording studios in Hollywood (laid back) versus Britain (run by a hierarchy of white-coated technicians) is particularly funny. Naturally, drugs season some of the tales. Dylan humorously cross-checks a good story about a police raid that saw some musicians stay to face the music while Stills bolted out the window.
With its focus squarely on the starter years 1964 to 1968 — a window bracketed by the game-changing 12-string strumming of the Byrds’ McGuinn on one end and the appropriately splitsville vibe of Neil Young’s Buffalo Springfield sayonara “Expecting to Fly” on the other — it leaves out a lot of names you might have expected to see/hear from, like Joni Mitchell. The generation just after is represented by Jackson Browne, and the poignant appearance of Tom Petty in one of his last interviews, wry and reverential about a scene and sound that spurred him to pick up a Rickenbacker.
It’s a testament to the good vibrations “Echo in the Canyon” gives off that even slightly forced scenes of Dylan, Spektor, Beck and Cat Power sitting in a hillside home ruminating on the Laurel Canyon legacy over a coffee table littered with albums doesn’t come off as obnoxious, but rather like a charmingly awkward fan powwow. (One wonders if a few era-deferential tokes might have loosened them up a bit.)
By keeping things short, sweet and dutifully tuneful, “Echo in the Canyon” is like the doc version of one of the period’s sonic nuggets, leaving you with a peace/love/understanding high and a desire to break out the vinyl for more of the same.
‘Echo in the Canyon’
Rated: PG-13, for drug references and some suggestive content
Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes
Playing: Starts May 24, The Landmark, West Los Angeles; Arclight Hollywood