One of the cooler – and in my opinion more essential – features of recent cinema is the fact that Hollywood has put out a slew of great films dealing with music, particularly rock and R&B. They’ve run a particularly intriguing gambit from bombastic crowd-pleasers like Bohemian Rhapsody to insightful documentaries like Amazing Grace. And there are still more to come this summer (Rocketman, Yesterday, and Blinded by the Light). It’s heartening to know that while the music industry suffers through its current nadir of mass-produced auto-tuned dreck, there are people out there who still know what real music is.
Do not misunderstand me. I will never argue that people can’t enjoy things, or that modern forms of artistic expression should be abandoned in favor of what came before. When I say “real” music, I mean auditory entertainment that actually fits the definition of the word, “music.” Per the Oxford English Dictionary:
“Vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) combined in such a way as to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion.”
A lot of what is currently considered to be “popular music” does not fit that definition. There is no instrumentation, only artificial “beats” made by distorting sounds on a computer, which is not a musical instrument in and of itself. Pressing “Play” on a MacBook does not make you a musician. Similarly, much of the vocal contribution is processed through so many different machines and programs that it can no longer be recognized as coming from a human. There is no form, or harmony (beauty of said being in the eye – or ear – of the beholder), and it’s really hard to argue that there’s an expression of emotion when the songs are written by anonymous executives and other entities that are shopped around and decided upon by other suits and producers, rather than the so-called “artists.”
I’m not trying to be a grandpa (I’m only 36 for Christ’s sake), or a “hater.” Some of this stuff I actually enjoy myself despite it not being actual music, and there’s plenty of real music that I thoroughly can’t stand (*coughTAYLORSWIFTcough*).
I say all this to express a modicum of sadness. Last week, when my girlfriend and I saw the newest music documentary, Echo in the Canyon, she and I were two among maybe 10 in the packed theatre who were under the age of 50. It saddens me that more young people aren’t interested in this kind of stuff, or even in learning about it, because this is the type of film that schools should be taking students to see on field trips, so that they can learn what real music is, even if they don’t appreciate it on any significant level.
Directed by former Capitol Records CEO Andrew Slater, the film chiefly stars Jakob Dylan, son of Bob and frontman for The Wallflowers, itself an act that’s aged for more than two decades. The two explore the roots of folk rock music in the 1960s, concentrated in the Laurel Canyon neighborhood of Los Angeles, just northwest of Hollywood. With the help of contemporaries like Beck, Regina Spektor, and Jade Castrinos, Dylan talks about the influence of the bands and artists of the era on themselves, as well as the effect they had on each others’ music at the time. The project takes place alongside a 2015 concert where they performed new spins on the classic songs, as well as recording covers under the same title as the film.
It’s an utterly fascinating look at the music that I grew up with, as well the stuff my parents grew up with. Opening with the unmistakable guitar riff of The Byrds’ “Turn Turn Turn,” the film quickly cuts to a record store where Dylan and the late Tom Petty discuss the significance of the Rickenbacker 12-string electric guitar in 60s music (as well as debating how to pronounce “Rickenbacker”). Similar anecdotal vignettes are conducted with the likes of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Lou Adler, Eric Clapton, Michelle Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas, and Ringo Starr among many others.
The segments all follow a certain pattern. There are interviews about how the 60s artists would literally live and visit with each other in their various Laurel Canyon houses, testing songs and melodies off each other, a level of collaboration that simply doesn’t exist today. There’s exploration about a particular song that Dylan and Slater find significant, archival footage of the original bands performing it (typically on American Bandstand or a similar show), followed by either a recording session where Dylan performs a cover with the artist, footage from the 2015 concert where he and others perform the song live (guest vocalists include Fiona Apple and Norah Jones), or both, with reaction from the original artist. In between there are discussions in Dylan’s living room with Beck, Spektor, and Jade about certain songs and albums (all of which are spread out on a coffee table), and the almost cyclical motion of them all feeding into and inspiring one another.
A lot of this can feel repetitive, but for me it works on two levels. One, pop music (even back when rock was pop) is about repetition. The pop sensibility involves familiar melodies and choral refrains to get people singing along. In that sense, the film feels pleasantly like an Extended Play record. Two, when the music is this good, who the hell cares if the film is repeating a formula? If you’re gonna throw Buffalo Springfield, The Beatles, and The Byrds at me for 90 minutes straight, I am most certainly NOT going to complain.
If anything, the only structural flaw deals with the few moments that seem tacked on. For example, there’s a scene in Dylan’s house where they talk about The Mamas and the Papas, which leads in to the segment with Michelle Phillips and the song, “Go Where You Wanna Go.” The living room discussion is interesting, but then for some reason Dylan gets up off the couch, crosses to the other side of the room (heretofore unseen and never seen again afterward), and turns on a vintage looking television that just happens to have the group performing on Bandstand. That was just cheesy as hell, and so obviously edited in that I honestly don’t know why they bothered. Similarly, they spent just as much time describing the environment of Laurel Canyon as it relates to the 1969 film, Model Shop, as they do the actual music scene, which is jarring because there’s almost no way the audience knows about this esoteric movie, and its only relevance has to do with certain shots of the neighborhood, which the filmmakers could have gotten any number of other ways without clearing the movie footage.
Apart from those minor gripes, though, this is a spellbinding bit of music history, and again, my only real disappointment is that there aren’t more young people seeing it. Even if they don’t like older music, it’s good to know the history and see the influence it has on the performers working today. Beck is certainly older than most pop stars, and he’s been around for quite a while. But he’s had a career resurgence of late, charting new hits, winning Grammy awards, and drawing the ire of Kanye West for not giving his awards to Beyoncé (I still laughably shake my head at the thought of Kanye telling Beck he needs to “respect artistry” when Beck wrote, produced, and played 14 instruments on his winning album, while Mrs. Knowles-Carter merely talk-sang and did weird videos for hers). Kids today know who Beck is, and they like his stuff, so why not get that deeper insight and understanding into his inspirations? Last night I saw a Billie Eilish video for the first time, because apparently she’s a thing now. My first thought was, “So this is what would happen if Fiona Apple had a child with a robot.” I can’t be the only one who sees that comparison (though mine is admittedly more cynical), so why not watch Fiona Apple sing tribute to her forebears to give Eilish’s fans that perspective?
This is why I’m sad. It’s not just that the younger generations don’t know about this stuff, or that the modern music industry basically makes it impossible for them to know about it (the likes of Ryan Seacrest and his ilk control what gets played and directly profit off of those plays and downloads, essentially creating a self-perpetuating monopoly). It’s also that the way the industry works now, I just don’t see this kind of reverence for music. Whether you’re a fan of the Beach Boys or not, their influence is undeniable, and Brian Wilson as a songwriter is of a type not seen before or since. Given what’s in the industry now, I just can’t see that type of zeitgeist-grabbing artistry today that would endure like the older stuff has.
No matter what your musical tastes, can you honestly tell me that you can see a situation in 40 years’ time where a similar documentary comes out about Cardi B? Can you see a bunch of musical scholars in 2060 sorting out who’s going to perform “Bodak Yellow?” (no disrespect to her personally, I’m just using her as a convenient example) If you said yes, you’re either an extreme visionary, or you’re lying through your teeth. And it’s not just pop/mumblerap/techno/EDM/whateverthefuck. Even pure rock has suffered since the turn of the 21st century. There are plenty of bands I like, but I can’t honestly say that any band formed in this decade (or even the last one) has the chops and creativity to make something as long-lasting and culturally important as the output from the five decades that preceded it.
The Laurel Canyon scene was a pivotal moment in music history. It was a meeting of minds and artistry, an exchange of ideas rarely seen before and basically not seen since. For better or worse (mostly worse), the music industry just isn’t set up in a way to foster that sort of atmosphere anymore. Thanks to Dylan and Slater, we have Echo in the Canyon as a reminder of how great music can move mountains and transform entire communities, but sadly, if the next generation doesn’t pick this stuff up (as well as a fucking instrument or two) and run with it, it’ll be lost forever.
So please, see this movie if you can, especially if you’re an aspiring musician or have a kid who is. This isn’t a “back in my day the music was better” movie. This is a “for fuck’s sake learn what music is” movie. And that makes it an essential movie.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What modern music do you like best, and how was it influenced by past musicians? Who would win in a fight, Crosby, Stills, Nash, or Young? Let me know!