Thud in the Canyon

The new documentary “Echo in the Canyon” about the glory days of music in Laurel Canyon devolves into a vanity project for Bob Dylan’s son

by Steve Murray

June 27, 2019

Featured image: Ringo Starr and Jakob Dylan in the new documentary Echo in the Canyon (Courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment)

What is Jakob Dylan’s truer claim to fame – being the lead singer of the Wallflowers, or being Bob Dylan’s son? I’m assuming the latter gave him the cachet and access to make Echo in the Canyon, a slick project with enough tangy anecdotes to keep fans of late-’60s music engaged. For non-fans, the movie – though filled with great old songs and newer covers of them by Dylan and contemporaries – might be only a curiosity, even a slog. The film opens in Atlanta June 28 at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

Dylan is an interesting figure, but not the most natural one to anchor a movie. As a famous son, he lives in the uncanny valley: He’s peculiar to look at, like a waxwork simulacrum of his father as a younger, more handsome man, with some of the elements fabricated slightly wrong, and all of the features studiously humorless. Dylan has an oddly expressionless face. Even calling Echo a movie is slightly misleading. In many ways it’s tie-in product placement — digitally filmed liner notes to accompany the album, released last month and also called Echo in the Canyon.

Featuring Dylan and musicians including onetime Atlantan Cat Power, Beck, Fiona Apple, Regina Spektor, and others, the tribute concert was filmed and recorded at L.A.’s Orpheum Theater in 2015. It was organized by Dylan and Andrew Slater, president of Capitol Records from 2001 to ’07. Slater is also the director of the documentary; it’s his only film credit.

Jakob Dylan in the studio in Echo in the Canyon.

OK, you see where I’m going with this. Putting aside my dislike of the movie’s commercial packaging, let’s get to the upside. Dylan and Slater’s film and the concert before it were inspired by the handful of years – 1965 to ’67 – when musicians from both coasts converged in Laurel Canyon to hang out, get high, and create a new sort of music forged from the collision of old folk songs, poetic lyrics and a rock ‘n’ roll beat. Across the ocean, the Beatles influenced the Byrds, and in turn the Byrds became the Beatles’ favorite stateside band.  (The thin line between being inspired by vs. stealing from fellow musicians is one of the movie’s subjects, treated good-naturedly.) 

Echo’s plentiful talking-head musicians include Tom Petty (whose recent, sudden death makes you wish Dylan had dug deeper in interviewing him), Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Jackson Browne, Michelle Phillips, Stephen Stills, the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, and Roger McGuinn and David Crosby of the Byrds. While others tiptoe around the difficulty of working with him, Crosby comes right out with it on-camera: “They threw me out of the Byrds because I was an asshole,” he says, tempering the admission with, “If you give kids millions of dollars, they’ll screw up.”

Jakob Dylan and Tom Petty in Echo in the Canyon.

The movie could benefit from more moments like that. There’s a great story here, but one Echo doesn’t maximize. Though voice-of-God, narrated documentaries can feel remote, this one might have benefitted from that kind of contextualizing, big-picture perspective. I’m not the hugest fan of his work, but I wondered what Ken Burns would do with the material. 

When Dylan, Spektor, Beck and Power sit around on a couch trying to express the importance of the late-’60s music scene on their own work, their words fall short of anything insightful. They give us a better sense of why the period was important when they sing their covers of the music (the movie arguably gives more screen time to these concert scenes than it should). Also, one of the notable non-shows in the movie is Dylan’s dad, Bob, who’s referenced repeatedly as one of the period’s catalysts and could have lifted Echo above its pleasant but less-than-profound status.  

Steve Murray is an award-winning arts journalist who has written about film, theater, books, and television for a quarter century. 

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