Roger McGuinn’s importance to popular music is inestimable. And if he’s not prepared to say it, then Andrew Slater’s Echo in the Canyon will.
“At the beginning of the film,” relates the filmmaker, speaking to the Georgia Straight from San Francisco, “I state what Warren Zevon said to me, which was that if McGuinn had just played the opening notes of the Byrds’ debut album and then dropped dead, he still would have exercised the most pronounced influence over rock music.”
No argument here, even if McGuinn himself—seen frequently in the film—is too constitutionally humble to crow about it.
The Byrds founder joins an impressive cast of participants to tell the story of that short but astonishingly fertile period from 1965 to ’67, when a feedback loop of creative inspiration, stretching between the U.K. and Los Angeles, produced what Slater calls “the foundation for everything that comes after”.
Among those joining McGuinn are Stephen Stills, Brian Wilson, Ringo Starr, and Michelle Phillips, along with auspicious fans including Tom Petty.
It’s a story that’s been told before, but Echo in the Canyon, opening Sunday (June 16) at the Rio Theatre, still manages to mine some of the deeper history of its subject. A buff like Slater—whose career from music industry honcho to filmmaker parallels that of Mamas and Papas producer Lou Adler, also interviewed—wasn’t likely to settle for less.
“We knew people were influenced by each other,” he says.
“But when McGuinn says he saw Hard Day’s Night and he got the Rickenbacker guitar, and he played the line in ‘Bells of Rhymney’, and George [Harrison] heard it, and he played the line in ‘If I Needed Someone’, which went on Rubber Soul, and Brian Wilson said ‘Rubber Soul inspired me to write Pet Sounds,’ and we find that McCartney is with Lou Adler and he takes the acetate of Pet Sounds and they write Sgt. Pepper—the details in that were a revelation.”
Slater is hugely abetted in the project by Jakob Dylan, a magnetic presence whose easy approach prompts often very candid interviews from all concerned.
Slater wanted viewers to feel like “we’re eavesdropping on a conversation between two artists,” no better exemplified than Dylan cracking up over David Crosby’s assertion that “all bands work their way down till it’s ‘turn on the smoke machine and play your hits.’”
“He’s able to say that because the temptation of reforming those groups really isn’t there for him,” explains Dylan, joining Slater on the line.
“So he doesn’t have to sweat that question too much. What he’s really saying is that bands don’t know when to stop doing it for a buck, but he can say that as cold as he wants to because those guys won’t play with him anymore.”
So, yes, the often legendary dramas of Laurel Canyon play out on screen, mostly amiably. (Dylan’s relevant comment on McGuinn: “Perhaps if Roger was a bigger loudmouth and bragged all the time like most do, people would have figured out his role more easily.”)
Slater actually structures the film around songs chosen for their portent, “tent poles for the story,” and performed by Dylan with guests including Fiona Apple, Cat Power, and Beck.
As such, we hear the painful backstory to the Mamas and Papas “Go Where You Wanna Go”, and, from a lively Stills, the fate of Buffalo Springfield predicted in Neil Young’s “Expecting to Fly”.
We naturally wonder, given his skill at shaking loose these sometimes thorny tales, if Dylan’s been yakking with these folk for years.
“Most all these people I’ve known as an adult really through being an artist and meeting them across the way,” he answers.
“The only one I knew when I was younger maybe was Tom Petty, but otherwise, not really.”
Chuckling, he adds: “There’s a misunderstanding that I grew up with these people, like I lived in the Monkees’ house. It’s not how it was.”