Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue May 21, 2019 10:56 pm 
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Location: California/NYC

That California Sound

The canyon means Laurel Canyon, in Los Angeles, a woody, hilly section that still gathers artists today. In the mid-Sixties it was fertile ground for the growth of a new kind of more sophisticated but just as iconic popular music. Folk rock was initially simply folk music (notably The Byrds' version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" on their titular album) played on electric guitars. Laurel Canyon was the home of some of the key musicians and bands, The Byrds, The Beach Boys, Buffalo Springfield, The Mamas and the Papas, The Turtles, The Association, legends whose music lives on perhaps all too much today in this era of cultural nostalgia and exhausted ideas. The California sound.

This is the subject of Echo in the Canyon, Andrew Slater's profile film featuring Jakob Dylan as both interviewer and retrospective concert performer, the first music documentary ever to open the Los Angeles Film Festival. The honor is deserved. This is a great music documentary and a fitting tribute to the musical centrality of L.A. in the Sixties. This may not have some of the ecstatic, riveting moments of certain music docs, but it has a lot of really good sound, and one of the interesting things that emerges is how rich the recording studio scene was in L.A. compared to England's. London's Abbey Road was stuffy men in white coats who put a limit on the bands. L.A. had Warner, Capital, and a bunch of others and some of the bands shifted around within a single album, using the best qualities of each studio, one good for bass, one for piano, one for echo, and so on. And Jakob does some interviewing in some still unchanged L.A. sound recording studios.

The essence of a renaissance is location plus people. Florence had Leonardo and Michangelo, Raphael, Botacelli, Donatello. Laurel Canyon had Michelle Phillips, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, Neil Young, Jackson Browne. Eric Clapton came and went, and, we learn, the Beach Boys' album "Pet Sounds" directly influenced the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper." Suddenly, due to the influence of folk music, whose popularity was at its zenith in the early Sixties, music with a pop beat started to have really interesting lyrics, meant to be attended to and pondered. Musicians of the time point out how everybody in those days bought the latest album - like "Pet Sounds," or "Sgt. Pepper" - and listened to it over and over, discussing it and puzzling over the meaning of the album cover. Bold ideas were expressed. Daring new musical combinations were tried. And the free use of drugs played a key part as social catalyst and mood shifter.

That key figures of this era like Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton David Crosby, Stephen Sills, Jackson Browne, Roger McGuinn and Michelle Phillips, not to mention tee final interview with the late Tom Petty, give relaxed and revealing interviews in this film doubtless owes much to the presence of and royal musical lineage of the interviewer, Jakob Dylan. This film is the result of a collaboration between Andrew Slater and Jakob dating to when Slater produced the former's group the Wallflowers’ album "Breach" in 2000. Thereafter the musician began work on an album covering songs by a variety of original folk rock bands titled Echo in the Canyon. Slater and Dylan saw the value of a larger project, including a film celebrating the musicians and including footage, as this does, of a 2015 Los Angeles Orpheum Theater tribute concert headlined by Dylan, who also serves as executive producer of the film.

Dylan's band The Wallflowers, who perform in the "Echo in the Canyon" concert, was made up of Beck, Fiona Apple, Jakob Dylan, Jade, Regina Spektor and Cat Power (and there are other musicians in the concert I don't have the names of). Clips of the tribute show are perhaps more edifying than ones of The Wallflowers rehearsing, or sitting around and discussing, not always brilliantly, the magic that went into the Laurel Canyon mid Sixties music scene and sound. With songs like "Turn! Turn! Turn!" and "California Dreamin" it's hard to go wrong. Tom Petty is a key transitional figure in the film because he was a teenager when the Laurel Canyon music was being born and shown on TV and it affected him viscerally. It would be nice if we could see that this sound plays into some fresh new music today, but that's not what we get.

The breakaway of Neil Young from Buffalo Springfield following the recording of "Expecting to Fly" is featured as an end to a brief era, and a more recent Neil Young plays over the closing credits, though he did not give an interview.

Echo in the Canyon, 82 mins., debuted Sept. 2018 at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Limited US roll-out release begins May 24, 2019. A 13-track soundtrack LP album of The Wallflowers' eponymous concert will also be issued by BMG on that day.

Sample of the tribute concert soundtrack, "Go Where You Wanna Go." This "ménage à trois" song of the Mamas and the Papas is discussed by Michelle Phillips in the film.


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