Blu-ray Review: Echo in the Canyon (2018)

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The second film released so far this year that was at least partially inspired by Jacques Demy's 1969 English language debut Model Shop, just like Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Echo in the Canyon is a love letter to L.A. in the 1960s.

And while Hollywood turned fact into fiction, as a documentary, Echo deals strictly with the facts. Or if not facts then the stories people have told themselves often enough to become facts, as Wallflowers front man Jakob Dylan discovers when he interviews landmark figures in the music scene who created the iconic California sound responsible for luring so many people from all over to the hills of Hollywood like a siren song.

Talking to the living members of The Byrds, The Mamas and The Papas, The Beach Boys, Buffalo Springfield, and more as well as next generation artists Tom Petty and Jackson Browne, Echo in the Canyon is at its most compelling best when it allows the voices of the era — including British imports Eric Clapton and Ringo Star — to speak for themselves and control the narrative.

Filling Echo with the gorgeous sounds of some of the Laurel Canyon scene's most definitive musical poems, we learn the story behind a few of the era's ubiquitous hits, including one confession by Michelle Phillips about her affair with bandmate Denny Doherty, which inspired her other bandmate — her husband John Phillips — to write "Go Where You Wanna Go."

Wanting to pay tribute to these songs and artists (and undoubtedly save a bundle on music rights fees) in a modern day narrative that is unfortunately far less engrossing than Dylan's interviews, the film follows the passionate Jakob Dylan as he gathers other musicians and records new covers of the songs he then performs in a live show.

A veritable jumble that has us jump from an engrossing interview with somebody like the great Brian Wilson to Dylan performing "In My Room" with Fiona Apple onstage and/or in the studio, the entertaining, if admittedly strained work, tries to cover too much ground and — like wind chimes blowing in the breeze — sounds lovely in the moment but fails to leave a lasting impression.

Nonetheless well-intentioned, Echo in the Canyon feels like it should've been made into two separate films — the first, a historical look at the music scene and the second, an affectionate concert filled with talented artists like Beck and Norah Jones celebrating the music they love in song.

Underplaying some of the big conflicts of the era including the Vietnam War and the protest anthems that came out of the late 1960s and ignoring some of the major voices of the era including the glaringly overlooked Joni Mitchell and The Doors, Echo, it seems, protects egos by picking and choosing the stories it wants to tell.

Directed by the former President of Columbia Records, Andrew Slater, who dreamed up the idea with Dylan after the two viewed Model Shop, which they felt was the visual equivalent of what The Mamas and The Papas or The Beach Boys sounded like, the film works very well as a promotional video for its catchy, star-studded soundtrack. As such, I defy anyone to watch Echo and not instantly become a new fan of Jade Castrinos, who, in accompanying Dylan, sings her absolute heart out.

However, brief scenes where Dylan sits around with artists and talks about their influences feel forced, as though they're eating up screen time that would've been better utilized by the original artists as they reveal their own influences and experiences writing, recording, and sharing songs with their neighbors in the artistically welcoming environment.

Though it feels like a California hangout movie, in the end, Echo in the Canyon is a missed opportunity to either delve more deeply into the subject at its core or focus purely on the impact that the music had on generations of other artists.

Anchored by the admirably knowledgeable Dylan and Slater, Echo shines brightest in its interviews and in some truly rousing performances. Yet instead of dividing the chorus from the melody to separate the music of the past from the sounds of the future, Slater's film plays like a passionate cover band album. A pleasant but empty experience, Echo in the Canyon brings back the memory of a concert you've never been to before but it could've — and indeed should've — been so much more.

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