When Byrds of a feather, and other bands, flocked together
“Echo in the Canyon” begins with those unmistakable first chiming notes of the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn.” Flicked-switch crisp, they’re radiant like a Southern California dawn. The documentary opens June 21 at the Kendall Square Cinema and Coolidge Corner Theatre. It’s hard to imagine a better aural marker for a documentary about the Los Angeles folk-rock scene, c. 1965-67.
Note the dates. We learn a lot about the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield. A bit further afield musically, if not geographically, the Beach Boys and the Mamas and the Papas figure prominently, too. But don’t expect any Joni Mitchell or Crosby, Still, Nash & Young, though David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash (who now looks alarmingly like Eric Idle) are among the numerous talking heads who ruminate on those long-ago days — and maybe even more on the nights. Also heard from are Brian Wilson (not enough) and Michelle Phillips (the opposite).
You’re likely to hear that much more about the nights (and hungover or strung-out mornings) in “David Crosby: Remember My Name,” which arrives at the end of July. This is definitely a boom period for Boomer music documentaries. Martin Scorsese’s “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story” is streaming on Netflix, “Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation” is at the Kendall, and “The Quiet One,” about Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman, opens there June 28. While we’re at it, that same day Danny Boyle’s “Yesterday” opens, a fictional film about a counter-reality in which only one person is aware of Beatles music.
Sherman, make sure the Wayback Machine has a tape deck.
The inspiration for “Echo in the Canyon” is a 2015 concert at LA’s Orpheum Theatre, where various younger artists — Jakob Dylan, Fiona Apple, Regina Spektor, Cat Power, Jade, Beck — performed hits from the earlier era. We get some footage of the concert. It’s not just old-guy crankiness to say that the kids’ versions are a pretty pale (if clearly loving) imitation. Nor are the kids actually kids: Dylan turns 50 in December. His father, the guy in the Scorsese documentary, turns 80 in two years.
We see rehearsals. Some are at Western Recorders, the legendary studio where many of the original recordings were made. Others are at a house so LA-in-the-’60s it could have wandered in from a David Hockney painting. At several points, four of the younger musicians sit in the living room behind a stack of LPs from the era and talk about the music on them with inarticulate enthusiasm.
Dylan serves as a sort of musical maitre d’. He converses with many of the talking heads. He performs songs. He drives around in a vintage convertible. It’s kind of a lame device, except that it does help convey a sense of LA as space as well as place. Also, it derives from Gary Lockwood’s character driving around in a vintage convertible in Jacques Demy’s 1969 film “Model Shop,” another inspiration for the documentary. What is outright lame is the stream of reaction shots of Dylan during the conversations. Yes, he’s a good-looking guy (clearly, it’s his mother he takes after), but he’s not that good looking.
The movie begins with Dylan and the late Tom Petty in a guitar shop. The film is dedicated to Petty, who’s one of several next-generation artists (Jackson Browne is another) who bridge the gap between people like the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn and the current generation. Dylan and Petty are discussing the proper pronunciation of Rickenbacker, the guitar of choice in that particular outpost of that particular era. They agree that it’s backer, as in linebacker.
Later on, Petty makes a point that’s so obvious it’s acute. “The ’60s were really blessed,” he says. “All that stuff showed up at once.” One of the best things about the documentary is the sense it gives of back-and-forth: how events in London or New York could have such an effect in Los Angeles, and vice versa. Two of the more appealing interviewees make that point both with what they say and who they are: Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr. Demonstrating a mastery of euphemism and understatement, Ringo recalls how the Byrds “introduced us to a hallucinogenic situation, and we had a really good time.” Consistently amiable, if a bit wandery, “Echo in the Canyon” provides a good time, too.
A performance by Jakob Dylan and the Echo in the Canyon band, preceded by a Q&A with Dylan and director Andrew Slater, will follow Coolidge screenings at 7 p.m. on June 22, and 5 p.m. on June 23; and screenings at the Kendall at 8:30 p.m. on June 22, and 2 p.m. on June 23.
ECHO IN THE CANYON
Directed by Andrew Slater. Written by Eric Barrett and Slater. At Kendall Square and Coolidge Corner. 82 minutes. R (the occasional casual obscenity and drug reference).