Late-’60s Los Angeles is on a lot of minds these days. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which just premiered at Cannes, is a time machine to Tinseltown in 1969. And a new documentary, Echo in the Canyon, looks back at the timeless music emanating from Laurel Canyon during a brief moment in the mid-’60s, when bands like the Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, and the Beach Boys were all living in close proximity, influencing and one-upping each other.
“All of these musicians saw A Hard Day’s Night, and they all wanted to be in bands like the Beatles,” says the film’s director, Andrew Slater, a veteran record executive and producer. “And when the Byrds have a hit in 1965 [“Mr. Tambourine Man”], electrifying folk music, they all come here chasing that dream.”
The moment didn’t last long. Bands broke up, and Joni Mitchell showed up—ushering in the age of the individual singer-songwriter.
“No matter how outlandish people’s dreams were at that time, in that innocent time, they felt they could come true,” says Slater. “But, as we all know, that kind of boundless optimism just never lasts.”
The film is a sun-drenched sermon evangelizing the glory of songs like “Never My Love” by the Association, “In My Room” by the Beach Boys, and “Expecting to Fly” by Buffalo Springfield.
“The thread for the film,” says Slater, “is really more about the echo than it is about the Canyon—the echo of these artists’ ideas, and how their own creativity reverberated between the houses in the Canyon, and ultimately across to England where it changes the course of the Beatles.”
Our host is Jakob Dylan, frontman of The Wallflowers and son of a famous troubadour who was making his own waves on the other coast during this era. Dylan interviews the likes of Michelle Phillips, Brian Wilson, and David Crosby for the stories behind these songs, and in between he performs duet covers of several of them with contemporaries such as Fiona Apple, Beck, and Cat Power.
“I really set out to make a record,” says Slater, who met Dylan back in 1987 and managed the Wallflowers for many years. The two men were in a reflective mood about their lives and careers, when they caught the Jacques Demy film Model Shop on TCM. “I saw all these places in L.A. from’ 67 that Jacques Demy and his cinematographer had filmed beautifully,” says Slater. “And that just sparked the idea of going back to the songs from that era, and exploring those, and maybe making a record.”
Dylan and his pals put on a concert of these songs at the Orpheum in 2015, and the studio album is finally coming out in tandem with the film on Friday.
Dylan turns 50 himself this December, but he doesn’t feel that gives him any special connection to this musical moment. “I snuck into the ’60s by about three weeks,” he says. “I do like to brag that I was there, but realistically, what do I know?”
He knows one thing: He came up in a much more cynical time in rock music.
“Graham Nash said in the movie, he still believes that songs and music can change the world,” Dylan says. “That’s when that concept was starting, and some gave up on that. Some thought the ’60s, that dream was just a big hoax that they got roped into. But there’s other people who don’t think that. They still believe—and it’s 50 years later, and that’s how much they believe in music. I came up in a much different time. I already came up with endless amounts of cynicism.”
In the film, Dylan and his peers lament the decline in song craft that was exemplified in Laurel Canyon in the ’60s.
“There was a lot of effort and a lot of work put into songwriting,” he says. “I think people then still confidently believed that there was no point in opening your mouth and singing if you didn’t have a good song. You couldn’t make a video and go viral and fool anybody with a decent song and a great video. You had to have a good song. And I still feel like that.
“So maybe that’s the legacy, is people like myself…before I imagine being on a stage or in a studio, I’m not going anywhere until I know there’s material.”
Dylan is currently working on songs for a new record. He’s not sure whether it will be an official Wallflowers album (the lineup has evolved over time), but he’s feeling revitalized after several years “off the carousel.”
“It’s an incredibly ripe time to be writing songs, there’s no doubt,” he says. “No matter which side of the aisle you’re sitting on. But I would just say, proceed cautiously. There are already a lot of songs that come out that I think are just too on the nose about our current climate. There’s not enough of a conversation going on. There’s nothing interpretive going on.”
In some ways, our moment is an echo of the political and social upheaval of the 1960s. And “because everything’s out of control,” Dylan says, “that’s a good time to write songs.”
Echo in the Canyon opens tonight for an invite-only screening at the Cinerama Dome and plays through the weekend.