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”
The 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.