With the screen still black, “Echo in the Canyon” kicks in with the famous jangling guitar open to the Byrds’ classic 1965 rendition of Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!”
And just like that, we’re transported back to a magical time for pop music, when the Byrds were at the forefront of a folk/rock revolution that eventually included the like of Buffalo Springfield; the Mamas and the Papas; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and many others.
Even the Beatles got in on the act.
Directed with a light touch and a keen sense of pacing and timing by Andrew Slater and featuring Jakob Dylan as tour guide, interviewer and leader of a superstar cover band, “Echo in the Canyon” is a love letter to the Laurel Canyon music scene of the mid-1960s and the artists who created and performed some of the loveliest, most impactful and most beautiful music in rock history. It’s the kind of music doc that makes you want to download about 50 songs — although you already should have most of them on your playlist.
The opening scene features Dylan and the late, great Tom Petty in a guitar shop, looking over the rows of amps and guitars.
Petty plugs in a Rickenbacker, says, “This was a folk-rock special,” finger-picks a few notes instantly reminding us of that Byrds sound from 50 years ago — and then stops and cracks, “You can’t afford the rest.”
It’s one of many smile-inducing little moments in “Canyon,” which also features the requisite ages-old footage of the Byrds and the Beach Boys et al., performing in concert and on various TV shows from the 1960s. (On “American Bandstand,” host Dick Clark welcomes CSN&Y and asks Neil Young to introduce himself before we meet the other fellows in the band.)
In an interview with Dylan, Jackson Browne explains how the Lauren Canyon neighborhood, carved into the Hollywood Hills region of the Santa Monica Mountains, was close to the Sunset Strip scene but had an entirely different, free-spirited, hippie vibe.
Dozens of promising young artists lived in the area. As Graham Nash remembers it, “Someone would just knock on your door [with a new song] and say, ‘Listen to this.’ ”
Dylan’s interview style is simple: he asks a question or two, and smartly stands back and listens while various legends who could be part of a Mount Rushmore of pop music tell their stories.
The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn recalls how his first attempts to add some electric guitar sounds to traditional folk in New York City were met with major resistance. Ringo Starr talks about when the Byrds introduced the Beatles “to a hallucinogenic situation.”
David Crosby sets the record straight about why he was kicked out of the Byrds: “It was because I was an a------.” Brian Wilson recalls how “Good Vibrations” was recorded in four separate studios, because each had a specific sound well-suited to a certain section of the song. Michelle Phillips tells how John Phillips wrote “Go Where You Wanna Go” as his way of acknowledging she wasn’t going to be tied down to just one man.
(I love how so many of these still-feisty greats continue to favor the looks they sported a half-century ago. John Sebastian, 74, of The Lovin’ Spoonful fame, still has the wire-rimmed glasses and the serious sideburns. Seventy-seven-year-old David Crosby’s Fu Manchu is all white, but as thick as ever. Jackson Browne, 70, still has that boyish look with the hair parted in the middle.)
There’s a bit of a vanity project aspect to the scenes featuring Jakob Dylan and a roster of terrific talents, including Norah Jones, Beck, Fiona Apple, Cat Power and Regina Spektor, recording and performing covers of “In My Room,” “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” “Never My Love” and other staples from the era — but the performances are well-crafted and lovingly rendered. At times these next-generation stars can’t contain the looks of pure joy on their faces as they pay tribute to the pioneers.
This is a sunny, sepia-toned, nostalgic trip to the past. The protest movements of the time are acknowledged — after all, many of these songs were anthems for change and peace — but this isn’t a historical documentary about class warfare and racial strife and the anti-war movement and the Manson Family murders, etc. It’s a vibrant celebration of a relatively brief, brightly shining, still resonant period when the AM airwaves, the hipster music TV shows, the concert halls and the 45 rpm turntables of teenagers everywhere were alive with the best poetry of the time, set to the sounds of one unforgettable hook after another.
May the echoes from the Canyon be heard for centuries to come.
Jakob Dylan is scheduled to answer questions and then perform with a band after Friday screenings at 7 p.m. at the Music Box Theatre and 8:30 p.m. at the Arclight Cinema.