To many Angelenos, Laurel Canyon is merely a way to drive between Hollywood and the Valley, preferably not during rush hour. But in the mid-1960s, it was the headquarters of a seminal music scene — the California electrified folk rock made popular by the Byrds, the Beach Boys, Buffalo Springfield and the Mamas and the Papas. The documentary “Echo in the Canyon” explores the influence of these bands.
Singer-songwriter Jakob Dylan — the Wallflowers’ frontman and the son of Bob Dylan — interviews music legends Brian Wilson, Ringo Starr, Michelle Phillips, Eric Clapton, Stephen Stills, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Roger McGuinn, Jackson Browne and Tom Petty as he records an album that pays tribute to them with his contemporaries Beck, Fiona Apple, Cat Power, Regina Spektor and Norah Jones.
“To me, the film is more about the echo than it is about the canyon,” director, producer and co-writer Andrew Slater told the Journal. “It’s really about the exchange of ideas in that period before big business took over. Each of these songs has an arc that goes back to somebody else. Stephen Stills writes ‘Questions’ because he heard Judy Collins write ‘Since You’ve Asked.’ Eric Clapton writes ‘Let It Rain’ based on hearing Stills’ ‘Questions.’ All of that is the foundation for popular music and it’s even more powerful today.”
Focusing solely on the music, Slater said, “I didn’t want to include the political and social implications of what was happening because I wanted to make a film that would transport people from the vicissitudes of their daily lives and transport them back to a simpler time in hopes that maybe they could take some of that kindness and community and bring it into their lives.”
A first-time filmmaker, Slater didn’t initially intend to make a movie. As a journalist, artist manager and president of Capitol Records, he was looking for his next step. “I was managing an artist and playing music again,” he said. “I was looking for a project that I could be passionate about, not to work for the sake of working.”
“To me, the film is more about the echo than it is about the canyon. It’s really about the exchange of ideas in that period before big business took over.” — Andrew Slater
He and Dylan, friends for 33 years, set out to make a record in 2015 and filmed some recording sessions, then a concert, and the project expanded from there. Inspired by the milieu of the 1969 Los Angeles-set movie “Model Shop,” the pair was eager to revisit the influences of the past. And when Slater failed to find a director, he took on the role himself, using his writing, story-crafting, video-making, editing and producing skills.
“The film could have been made a lot faster if we had been able to do a traditional filming schedule,” Slater said. “There was no one who didn’t want to do it; it was working around people’s schedules. I also wanted very specific settings. There are various ways to tell a story and I tried to do a combination of many things — interviews, the studio recording of a song, performing it live and talking to the person who wrote it.”
The documentary is dedicated to Tom Petty, who died in October 2017.
“He’s like the professor. He bridges the gap between the two generations,” Slater said. “He was an inexhaustible storehouse of knowledge and provides perspective between the people who are saying what was happening in ’65 and the people of Jakob’s generation who this music has influenced.”
At the time the Laurel Canyon scene was flourishing, New York native Slater was living in Forest Hills, Queens, listening to the Laurel Canyon artists on the radio, fantasizing about “this beautiful, idyllic place” where they lived. He played guitar and watched documentaries such as “Woodstock” and “Monterey Pop,” since he was too young to attend concerts. “I was very passionate about music from the time I was young,” he said.
He remembers going to the Forest Hills Jewish Center and stopping in at the Pontiac dealership across the street. “I’d go in and sit in this Firebird convertible. When I was older and making money, I bought that car. It’s the car you see in the film,” he said. Although he isn’t an observant Jew, “I’m a very spiritual person,” Slater said. “I’m aware that there are things in the universe that I’m not in control of. My sense of spirituality is strong.”
Although he found out how difficult it is to make a documentary, “I learned that I love it as a form of expression and storytelling,” Slater said, adding that he’s eager to make another. “But you’re only able to do things if people believe in your ideas and believe they’ll make their money back. So we’ll have to see where this goes.
“For me, it’s important to tell stories that are close to my heart. So it would be something that moves me emotionally and that’s probably in music,” he said. “I’ve learned that whatever subject you’re going to take on, you’ve got to like it, because it takes over your life.”
“Echo in the Canyon” is in theaters now.