From The Doors to Frank Zappa to Joni Mitchell, the Laurel Canyon scene has played an integral part in American music history. Hippies and drugs and counter-culture lyrics took root and spread through those hills. Andrew Slater steps from his roles as music journalist and former head of Capitol Records to make his directorial film debut, focusing on a specific pinnacle of the music of Laurel Canyon, the period from 1965 to 1967.
He captures the music scene through interviews and rare footage, recruiting Jakob Dylan to sit down with the likes of Eric Clapton and Tom Petty to talk about how the music of the canyon grew to such influence. Seeing Petty talk about the music gives emphasis to how incredible this documentary really is. Seeing how Slater traces the interwoven connections is even more impressive. I caught up with Slater to talk about filming Echo in the Canyon and hear what he thinks of today’s musical biopics.
What’s your first memory of Laurel Canyon?
Growing up in New York, most of that music was on the radio. Playing in a concrete park, in the freezing cold and surrounded by stone and a million people, I was listening to these records; Good vibrations and California Dreaming. I was thinking that there’s this mystical place at the edge of the country where the Pacific meets the mountains, and I need to be there because I saw pictures of it in It’s a Mad Mad World and The Beach Blanket movies. My first impressions of California and the canyon life were really through the marriage of that music and those films.
I don’t know if it’s about manifesting destiny or Jeffersonian democracy, one of those things had me migrate here.
Here we both are, and who knows what we put out there. In terms of the music, where did the genesis of your film come from and the idea that this had the potential to make a great music documentary?
I was in one of those transitional places after I had left Capitol. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do next creatively. Jakob Dylan was in the same place too, and we had worked together a lot. We were sitting in my house, on Turner Classic Movies, Model Shop came on. It was Jacques Demy’s 1969 film about Los Angeles and life in LA and this guy’s journey about life in LA. We saw the city in this time of innocence, and it was beautiful. The landscape of LA is not like Paris lined with beautiful resonant structures, but it looked really innocent and lovely.
As record makers, we decided to go back and look at the music that brought me here and try to find a way to interpret it and to make something new out of our appreciation for the foundation of music in LA.
We set out to look at the songs by these bands and they all have stories behind them. They have people behind them. As we started to do more research, we saw all this connective tissue and we thought maybe we should make something more out of this than a record and a record of duets.
I approached a few documentary filmmakers, but nobody wanted to tackle this. I was talking about a very specific time in California. When you think of Laurel Canyon in the general sense, I think people think of Patchouli oil or flowers and hippies walking down the street to the General Store where Joni Mitchell is going to be playing a folk song.
For us, there were three distinct periods of Laurel Canyon music; there’s the beginning when The Byrds have a hit on their first record. They have the mushroom haircuts, the velvet collars and the suits. They’re meant to be the American Beatles. Instead, they invent American folk rock by accident by using beat poetry with rock music influenced by The Beatles music. When all the bands come to California; The Mamas and the Papas and the Beach Boys and they start listening to all that stuff, that begins the first period of Laurel Canyon. It’s an innocent time before people realized it was a huge business. Before people were concerned about their own individual path outside of the idea of being in a band.
The second period was the psychedelic period thing where The Doors happen, the drugs change, and things get a little darker.
The third phase is more about the individual artist searching his own path. The bands become Crosby, Stills and Nash. Young. David leaves The Byrds and meets Joni, he brings her to LA and the make their first record. That’s the period that most people think about and for us, that’s been done. The BBC has a great documentary about Laurel Canyon and that.
We were more interested in the echo of people’s creativity and their ideas between them and the band. The bands had multiple signers and songwriters. We wanted to look at how those ideas were being traded freely in a sense of community across the street to other bands. Ultimately, across how that echoes across the ocean to The Beatles and how that changed their course. It then echoes across time and influences the work of the younger artists in the film.
When I speak to filmmakers, once they get one person, everything else slots into place. Did that happen here?
When no one was going to make the film, someone said I should make it. I thought he wasn’t thinking it through. I had been a journalist in my younger days. I had written this treatment, and I knew about interviewing people and using quotes to justify what I was saying in my pieces. I knew that structure.
In the early days of MTV, I was hiring directors such as Fincher. I worked a bit in that. I knew these producers and editors and thought I’d try to put the team together. I made a list of people whose songs we were covering.
So, the first person we filmed was Eric Clapton. What I found with Eric was the conversation between Jakob and Eric was so personal and revealing of things that I had never heard Eric say, that perhaps the path for this film to have something original would be in the fact that two artists were speaking instead of a journalist or a talking head.
I said I needed three cameras to make sure we were covered. I was concerned about the shot and how things looked. I revered the interviewees and wanted them to look good. I wanted to see their faces when they were speaking.
The BBC documentary is great. When you go for the story but you don’t have a lot of time, you get the content and you can use a voiceover, but most people don’t look great in these documentaries. I wanted to make something that when someone is telling you something, you see their face and their emotion just in their eyes and the way they’re looking at Jakob. I wanted something that was graphically pleasing for the audience to see in a theater. I had more aspirations to make something for the cinema than more than for your laptop.
Dive into the editing a bit between the music and the process.
It’s an editor’s medium. Just like music videos are an editor’s medium but in a deeper way. With the editing for this, I couldn’t really wait for us to gather all the interviews before we started making the film. I had an idea of what I wanted to do. The process of editing was the elements that I gathered; it was the filming of the songs being recorded, and the songs being played live. Along with the subjects who were being interviewed and the footage that we found. The songs were the entry point into the bands. The bands were the entry point into the personalities and the era and the places they lived and the places they recorded. So, the structure was there. Without voiceover and narration, it was a challenge. I didn’t want to do the narration. I wanted it to mirror the journey of the character in Model Shop.
I saw Jakob’s journey to find the information of these songs very similar to Gary Lockwood’s art film exploration.
Do you feel their influences in today’s artists?
Absolutely. Think about it. Roger McGuinn sees A Hard Day’s Night. He gets the Rickenbacker 12-string and electrifies folk music. He has a song called Bells of Rhymney. George Harrison hears that and writes If I Needed Someone. That goes on Rubber Soul. Brian Wilson hears Rubber Soul and he records Pet Sounds. The Beatles hear Pet Sounds and they record Sgt. Pepper. Right there is the bedrock for everything in music for the last fifty years. You can draw a direct parallel to the work of Beck or the work of Father John Misty or the work of Jakob Dylan or even Fiona. You can find that. It’s clearly a huge directly transparent influence and if not that, then it’s certainly the foundation for the education of recorded music for any artist.
What do you think of the new biopics such as Rocketman or Bohemian Rhapsody? But then you also have great music documentaries?
Anytime Hollywood interprets something of value in culture; it changes the nature of the way people perceive it. It amplifies it. It allows more people to recognize its significance in their lives. It just depends on who is controlling the piece of art that they are making to put out in the world. When I look at I’m Not There, that is a tremendous artistic achievement in terms of the marriage of something from the music culture and film. In terms of documentaries, obviously, I think the first one that set the music world on fire is No Direction Home by Scorsese. That was an incredible piece of work.
Anytime, the public has a fascination and there’s a potential for consumption, people are going to finance a project like that.
I haven’t seen it yet, but the Rolling Thunder Revue is meant to be amazing.
I haven’t either, but I was there. I saw two of the tours. I was there.
I saw two of those shows. I’m like a hundred years old. I got to see Lou Reed.
Did you see Elvis?
I saw him in his 70s period. For me, my whole – I come from that Leftist Bohemian. My heroes were poets, writers and filmmakers. People who were working against the middle of the road. When I saw him, I think he was trying to figure out how to fit into a different world. When I saw him, he was the guy with the giant collar and a scarf. I saw these ladies who looked like my mother. I do appreciate his greatness, but at the time I saw him, it was confusing to me.