Lots of different music styles were popular in the 1960s, but when it came to pure sweetness, nothing could beat the California Sound. Whether the subject was young love or fierce politics, musicians like the Beach Boys, Buffalo Springfield, and the Mamas and the Papas managed to wrap it in gentle tunes and rich vocal harmonies, backed by easy-on-the-ear instrumentals. When a distinctive musical style emerges, it’s usually the result of many individuals sharing ideas, and the artists who created the California sound are no exception to this rule: wherever they came from, most spent at least some of time living and working in the Laurel Canyon district of Los Angeles.
You’d never guess from watching Echo in the Canyon, a hugely enjoyable documentary about the California music scene in the mid-1960s, that it’s Andrew Slater’s directorial debut (and to top it off, his debut as a screenwriter and producer). It’s an astonishingly assured effort that never puts a foot wrong, skillfully mixing interviews with the creators of the California sound with clips from their original recordings and snippets from a 2015 concert in which showcased younger artists, including Jakob Dylan, Fiona Apple, Beck, and Norah Jones performing some of the greatest hits of the California sound.
Dylan is also an executive producer on the film, which may explain why he’s on camera so much, but in his defense he’s a charming presence and an excellent interviewer who has a knack for putting his subjects at ease. And it’s quite a line-up of interview subjects he gets to speak with (somebody’s Rolodex certainly got a workout), including Roger McGuinn and David Crosby of the Byrds, Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield, along with music producer Lou Adler and other musicians of the period, including Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr. More importantly, Dylan induces his subjects drop some interesting tidbits into what could easily have been a parade of self-congratulatory reminiscences, so we get to hear about, among other thing, the unfortunate reception which greeted McGuinn’s rendition of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” in New York and the story behind “Go Where You Wanna Go” (hint: it was the era of free love, and not just for the guys). The clips of period performances are also well chosen—have the Rolling Stones ever looked as sedate and wholesome as they when appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show?—and the songs are just so tuneful that you don’t have to be a baby boomer to find yourself humming along.
Sweetness is the order of the day for Echo in the Canyon, which at its heart is one great big lovefest dedicated to some extraordinary music and the fond memories of the people who created it. If the phrase “living your best life” means anything, that’s what these artists were doing: creating great music, enjoying unprecedented personal freedom, and collaborating with other talented people. There were other things going on in music, of course, and in the world at large (the Vietnam War comes immediately to mind, as well as the struggle for everyone who wasn’t a straight white man to achieve basic human rights), but one of the great strengths of Echo in the Canyon is its willingness to confine itself to a particular story, situated in a specific time and place. | Sarah Boslaugh