Friday, January 16, 2015
The Lost Tapes: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes Continued
Let me propose a rule: if a movie is about music, voices commenting on the music should not be dubbed over the music that is the film's subject. In other words, it's impolite to talk while a musician is performing -- a principle that applies in concert halls and documentaries about music-making. This rule is violated conspicuously and with irritating predictability in Sam Jones' 2014 documentary The Lost Tapes: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes Continued. This is only one of several things wrong with this film, an amiable muddle that seems to have been made by Capitol Records to promote a recent CD. The documentary's premise is simple enough: a box full of lyrics written by Bob Dylan has turned-up. The provenience of the box is never established and we are never told (or shown) anything interesting about the hundred or so scraps of paper covered with whimsical drawings on which the lyrics are written. Who had the box? Who owns the intellectual property? Why has the box of lyrics not surfaced until recently? None of these questions are answered. T-Bone Burnett is hired to produce a record based on these lyrics and six musicians are enlisted for the project -- these include Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, Rihannon from the "Georgia Chocolate Drops", and several other young men unknown to me: one guy is from something called "My Morning Jacket," the other guy plays with a band called "Dawes." The musicians agonize over writing tunes adequate to the lyrics, most of which are inconsequential fragments, bits of verse rejected by Dylan because too formulaic or too Dylanesque, perhaps. The record has to be recorded in two weeks and so there is some mild time-pressure, suspense, of a sort I suppose, as to whether the project will be completed. The work in the studio improvising the songs is intercut with grainy super 8 images that purport to show Bob Dylan and the members of the Band at Big Pink in Woodstock, the place where the lyrics were written. This footage is faked, although the viewer doesn't realize this until the end of the film and, then, feels duped. I'm happy, however, to know that the pictures of the Band and Dylan disporting themselves with a football or big dogs at Big Pink is all phony -- the stuff looks like out-takes from a Monkees' TV show. Periodically, voice-overs purporting to be Dylan or Robbie Robertson or some other musician are heard -- these are also all faked. One of the serious problems with the documentary is that just about everything interesting in it is dramatized and contrived and not too effectively at that. The filmmaker seems to suggest that Dylan and the Band produced music like a bird sings, spontaneously and in conditions of great joy and love. By contrast, the hapless team assembled by Burnett agonizes endlessly over their songs, engages in much muttering and nattering about creativity and the imagination, and seem hopelessly conflicted about their assignments. But this ostensible contrast is completely fake since the footage of the happy-go-lucky Dylan and his shaggy mates from the late sixties is fictional and the voices describing the cheerful proceedings at Big Pink are also just actors -- something the naïve viewer doesn't figure out until the closing credits. (Apparently, Dylan et. al. were willing to be paid a cut on the CD and movie but didn't want to be too closely associated with it.) At times, the movie has the feel of a TV show like The Celebrity Apprentice -- we keep expecting T-Bone to call one of the musicians into his office to summarily fire him for poor performance. Indeed, one shot of Rihannon listlessly walking down the halls of Capitol records with her suitcase and garment bag seems modeled after the sequences ubiquitous in shows like Face-Off or The Apprentice in which the disappointed cast member is sent home in disgrace. Since all the action takes place in the recording studio, the show is shot like one of those reality series in which squabbling roommates are forced to interact in some luxury apartment that the network has procured for them -- except The Lost Tapes doesn't have the appeal of scandal or sexual misbehavior. After immense effort, the musicians produce three or four pretty tunes. Several of the songs are effective and memorable; Mumford is a pleasant presence and seems genuinely talented. The dog-eyed and depressed-looking kid from Dawes is handsome and friendly. The sole woman, Rihannon, seems uncomfortable among all the boisterous boys but, ultimately, after much soul-searching writes a good song; Elvis Costello is dapper -- he and T-Bone Burnett wear their sunglasses at night and Burnett bobs his head benignly in silhouette in the recording booth. There are snatches of great old Dylan tunes, but the curse of the show is the constant talk -- voices are overdubbed on top of songs like "The Mighty Quinn" and "I shall be released." Is nothing sacred?