Echo in the Canyon (2019)

Directed by: Andrew Slater Written by: Slater and Eric Barrett

“Oh where have you been my blue eyed son, oh where have you been my darling you one”- Bob Dylan, “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”

echo-in-the-canyon-poster-1The above could be the tagline for Echo in the Canyon a film that follows Jakob Dylan as he interviews and celebrates the historic residents of Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon scene. The canyon is a pristine, hilly neighbourhood located within urban Los Angeles, a combination of traits that endeared it to 1960s singer-songwriters. These singer-songwriters in turn drew in others and the canyon became a music community

The film never explicitly notes that its protagonist is the son of Bob Dylan. There are several reasons for this including the fact that Bob himself was not part of the laurel canyon scene, and that Jakob, likely wants to be seen for the respected artist he is in his own right. Still, the film’s structure, features Jakob (and other “younger” musicians, including Beck, Regina Spektor, Jade Castrinos and Cat Power) lovingly looking at classic vinyls and recording covers of the canyon’s great songs, and thus comes across as the tale of “the darling young one” learning from the old masters.

Perhaps I only say all of this because I watched the film through the eyes of a film reviewer. At times I’ve debated whether it makes sense to review documentaries on this blog. One of my favourite films of 2018 is Won’t You Be My Neighbor, a celebration of the cultural contributions of Mr. Rogers. I didn’t review that film (and can’t help but feel that I cursed it, as it shockingly was not even nominated for Best Documentary at the Oscars), because I simply couldn’t decipher what I should review. Of the things that I liked in that workm what could actually be called “the film” and what was simply beautiful fact?

Echo in the Canyon’s biggest weakness is its lack of a clear narrative structure. It starts out strong, introducing The Byrds, noting, how in their historical context, Roger (Jim) McGuinn, David Crosby and company’s decision to play the folk music of Dylan and Seeger with electric guitars was revolutionary. Much like the early rockabillies who were deemed innovative for blending the worlds of “country” and “blues,” The Byrds existed in a world of stratified genre, making their shimmering yet poetic sound quite the shock to the music establishment. The film also implies that, to a limited extent, The Byrds were America’s answer to The Beatles.

Echo in the Canyon moves on to discuss America’s other Beatle counterpart: The Beach Boys, emphasizing Brian Wilson’s gift as near-classical composer. The Byrds and Beach Boys segments give the documentary a great start. What I often enjoy in music biopics and documentaries is their ability to tell viewers that the music they love is not only enjoyable, but deep and inspiring. Echo in the Canyon’s problem is that this is not its guiding principle.

After The Byrds and Beach Boys go away, the film looses its analytical quality and instead becomes a mere montage of Jakob meeting the legends and covering their songs. The covers are good to listen to, and figures like Michelle Phillips and Stephen Stills certainly offer memorable stories, but it is in these scenes that Echo in the Canyon as a cohesive identity breaks off into a simple collection of music-gossip-magazine features.

The movie’s second half is why I think I shouldn’t review documentaries. Perhaps Echo in the Canyon isn’t meant to be artistically analyzed. It’s a series of cool interviews and perhaps the damn critics should leave it alone.

But is because I do have my critics hat on, that I raised the “where have you been my blue eyed son motif.” Jakob Dylan is more than a mere narrator in the documentary, but his presence is limited to a role as a mere fan with connections and a band. Jakob Dylan’s admiration for the Canyon musicians is clearly a factor in the movie, and since that’s the case he could have afforded to ham things up: to be portrayed as an awestruck nobody (on one end of the spectrum) or as the son of music royalty, with a strong commitment to learning from the past and restoring the names of Dylan and the singer-songwriters to their former glory. The low-key, but successful musician we get in place of either of these figures may be real and talented, but when it comes to creating an oeuvre, sometimes that’s not enough.

Echo in the Canyon offers a chance to hang out with a wonderful roster of figures including McGuinn, Crosby, Wilson, Phillips, Jackson Browne and a sorely missed Tom Petty. Fans seeking this kind of an experience can absolutely enjoy the work. It’s flaw is simply that, short of summarizing its literal contents, there’s just not that much to say about it.

John & Yoko: Above Us Only Sky (2018)

Directed by: Michael Crowley

Story Editing by: Joss Epstein

  v1                John Lennon may be the most famous Beatle. He died young at the hands of a gunman and his song “Imagine,” is probably the most well known solo tune by any of the fab four. But how well do most people know his post-Beatle music? Above Us Only Sky is an unfortunately over-focused documentary in that it tells of the life of John Lennon and Yoko Ono primarily around the time John was working on his second post-Beatle record. In that sense, it does not provide much in the way of consumable information on his post-Beatles work. Nonetheless, the film does offer a thesis: that John and Yoko were in a way one, and through that thesis it both provides insight into their music while also introducing viewers to Yoko’s art.

Above Us Only Sky does not get off to an excellent start. It shows Tittenhurst Park, John and Yoko’s countryside home, and the recording studio John built there. Much of the film’s interview content discusses the building of this studio and how John’s early in-studio jam sessions proceeded. While committed fans might enjoy this footage, including depictions of a quiet, very-focused George Harrison, it doesn’t really build up to anything. Viewers who make it through these scene, however, will likely appreciate what they come to see.

Yoko’s prominence in the documentary gradually rises. Her first extensive depiction is interview footage of her describing one of her earliest artistic memories. The film only discusses a few of her projects, projects that may sound very simple to outsiders. What’s striking, however, is how much those projects captivated John. The film makes only brief reference to the story that Yoko “broke up the Beatles,” but it quickly makes clear that this narrative has a causation problem. Yoko didn’t take a sledgehammer to the band, but rather, upon meeting her, John’s identity changed.

One of the Lennon songs that partially makes it into the movie is “Cold Turkey.” We see a long-haired John playing the song alongside Yoko, an image which renders plain just how strange a song “Cold Turkey,” is, and in turn, just how a different an artist Beatle and post-Beatle John were. Post-Beatle John did not concern himself which composing musical hooks. At most, he was concerned with getting ideas out, and he put music behind them to represent his moods, un-catchy as those moods might be.

In some ways its hard to fully appreciate John and Yoko’s art out of context. Modern art has proliferated, and “Merry Xmas War is Over,” a song Yoko describes as a proactive call for people to think of the world differently has become ubiquitous. Nonetheless, even if one can’t look at Yoko’s “Yes” piece with the same wonder that John did fifty years ago, the film still resonates. Its portrayal of two minds merging is very convincing, and it should makes those two dismiss Yoko as the scream-singer think-twice about their understanding of her as a musician

Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. (2018)

Directed by: Steve Loveridge

Poster_for_Matangi-Maya-MIA,_June_2018I should preface this by saying I don’t have a great knowledge of M.I.A’s music. Based on a very limited sample, the only one of her songs that’s really to my taste is “Paper Planes,” a track which, with mild crypticness, satirically plays with right-wing stereotypes about immigration. That said, I’m not sure whether my lack of knowledge of M.I.A.’s music was for the better or the worse when I saw this film. Her songs, while present in the movie, are not its guiding force and do not play a role in shaping the film’s trajectory (one might anticipate a documentary about a musician might build up to the release of their most recent defining song). As such, I caution music fans to be prepared for this disappointment.I know all too well the awkward feeling of realizing a concert is over (there are no more encores) and a musician has still left several of their no-doubter classics out of the set.

That disclaimer aside, there are at least two key reasons why M.I.A.’s life is particularly suitable for documentary-production: two key reasons why Matangi/Maya/Mia will likely be remembered as one of this year’s defining documentaries (amongst people who remember such things that is).

The first reason is the film’s Linklater-esque quality. M.I.A. has been documenting her life on a handheld camera since (at least) her early adulthood. This footage makes up a good portion of the documentary. While the film does not discuss M.I.A’s motives for making these clips, it comes across as if a version of this documentary was always in the works. M.I.A. regularly filmed her family members engaged in somewhat serious conversation with her, producing a number of documentary worthy interviews. The existence of this footage also gets at another of the film’s themes: that becoming a star involves a deep confidence and vision. Granted, the documentary shouldn’t get too much credit for this theme, since a big part of M.I.A.’s ascent to stardom comes from her befriending a successful musician and getting hired to produce her music videos (the film makes it unclear how this opportunity manifested itself).

The second reason why M.I.A’s life makes for a good a documentary, is that it provides a strong example of a (racialized woman) celebrity getting panned for expressing political opinions: the old “shut up and sing” trope. The film recalls how M.I.A. was criticized for accusing the Sri Lankan government of genocide, despite her wealth and speaking like “Mick Jagger.” While such critiques can at times be valid, the film shows how they were particularly problematic in M.I.A.’s case. The case against M.I.A.’s activism was manufactured (note a key a scene about truffle fries) without any regard for the substance of her arguments.

Another important incident in the film involves M.I.A. inspiring “public outrage” for flipping the bird on live TV. One would think such an incident would be innocuous, well into the age of South Park, etc.,etc., but the white male professional bowler that a news network invited on air to discuss the incident clearly felt otherwise. The highlighting of this part of M.I.A.’s experience is particularly pertinent in an age of social media bubbles. Having become quite used to my peers excitedly noting the “woke” behaviors of certain celebrities, watching Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. proved an important reminder for me of the state of popular consciousness.

In summation, Matangi/Maya/M.I.A, thrives because of its use of home-archival footage and its exploration of discourse surrounding celebrity activism. Aside from these two defining qualities, the film doesn’t offer much else. That’s not a damning critique: those two qualities are enough to make it an interest work . Nonetheless, there are questions the film leaves unanswered. M.I.A. reportedly had only limited involvement with the making of the film, and given the little bit I know about her, I can’t help but wonder whether she would have been happy with the film’s depiction of her politics, or whether it made her look too much like a single-issue activist. And I also wonder whether the film could have done more to analyze her music (or at very least play more of it). Regardless, I enjoyed this film despite having little previous knowledge of M.I.A.’s artistic output. I can only imagine that those more invested in her as an artist will be even more intrigued.

Faces Places (2017)

Written by: Agnes Varda, Directed by: Varda and JR

Visages,_Villages      It’s not hard to find a good documentary film. There are plenty of subjects worth learning about in two hour sequences of moving, colored images. Great documentaries, however, blur the lines between fiction and non-fiction. In some cases, producing a documentary like this requires a huge historical coincidence. That was the case with Joshua Oppenheimer’s, The Act of Killing, which explored the eagerness of people who had committed horrid acts of political murder in Indonesia to explore their acts through participation in gangster films.

In other (lighter), cases, however, quasi-fictional documentaries requires the spark of their director’s. Yes, for instance, told the story of a Québecois-Separatist-artist’s journey to immerse himself in the Scottish independence movement. This year saw the release of a similarly inspired documentary: Agnes Varda’s Faces Places.

Faces Places features Varda following JR, a young photographer who prints out giant photographs of his subjects and prints them on public buildings. Varda explains her investment in the project by noting her desire to get to know more people. Each of the film’s subjects is brought to attention for very different reasons: some speak to a history of working class suffering, others ask us to reconsider the dominant farmer-farm-animal relationship, while others are simply locals offered the chance to gnaw on a baguette.

I began to doubt the film’s potential about a third of the way in. While Varda and JR were certainly finding original subjects to portray, I found the art that the film focused on to be getting a bit repetitive. Furthermore, I questioned the approach of always decorating walls with giant cut outs of people. If this film was truly a celebration of faces and places, wouldn’t it be a better idea to make some smaller cut outs, so as not to obscure buildings in their entirety, and so as not to deny the chance of other people involved in the history of a site to be represented?

My fears were soon assuaged, however. While I may maintain some artistic differences with JR, those differences became increasingly irrelevant as the film came to be about Varda and JR, not so much their art. For instance, one of the subjects that Varda proposes JR document is someone she photographed in her past, not necessarily a person with an area defining story. The film also shows us their conversations along the way. We see Varda’s ambivalent relationship to her age (approximately 88 at the time of the filming). On the one hand, as in previous works, she exposes her aging on film via depictions of medical procedures performed on her eyes. On the other hand, she is insistent on maintaining her youth, through example, through her bright orange hair and by contrasting herself with JR’s 100-year old grandmother. JR’s personality, meanwhile, remains more mysterious. Varda, however, regularly questions his reserved tone, particularly his decision to always wear sunglasses.

Faces Places, in short is a little bit political, a little bit educational, and a little bit of an homage to film history. More than anything else, however, its a buddy comedy like none you’ve probably ever seen. While its premise may prove a hard sell, those who do choose to see it will find that it is an easy work to love and perhaps one of the most creative cinematic concepts of the year.