On Nov. 22, capping a monthlong flood of Bob Dylan-related activity (including his three concerts at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis this week), Showtime will begin streaming “Lost Songs: The Basement Tapes Continued” via its Showtime Anytime app.
Directed by Wilco chronicler Sam Jones, this rather fumbling documentary observes Marcus Mumford and other cool if not legendary musicians working painfully hard to conjure new tunes with lyrics Dylan wrote off the cuff in 1967.
Like so much Dylan product of the past, oh, 40 or 50 years, “Lost Songs” feels at once profoundly frustrating and perversely perfect. Represented solely by a few mumbled voiceovers, Dylan is, once again, “not there” — give or take the giant shadow the Mystery Tramp casts over any and all who bid to emulate or understand him.
In the words of one of the 138 tracks on “The Basement Tapes Complete” — the box set, due Tuesday, that definitively brings his much-bootlegged and bastardized ’67 recordings above ground — Dylan “don’t belong to anybody.” Indeed, the only certainty of Dylanology through the decades has been the artist’s almighty absence in one way or another, not least from live versions of old faves that he delights in twisting and pulling until they become virtually unrecognizable. (The answer is blowin’ in the what?)
Near the start of a vastly superior Dylan doc, 2012’s “Down in the Flood: Bob Dylan, the Band & the Basement Tapes” (streamable on demand via Amazon Instant Video), the dean of rock critics, Robert Christgau, likens Dylan not to Judas, but to God.
“Jim McGuinn was not, Phil Ochs was not, Pete Seeger was not — only Dylan, he was God,” declares Christgau with impish wit. “So God changed his mind.”
Although the critic was referring specifically to Dylan’s seismic shift in 1965 from acoustic to electric, and from topical to surreal, “Flood” is chiefly concerned with his decision — following the ’66 motorcycle crash he may also have divined — to go unplugged again, this time in tribute to all of the old, weird sources of American roots music.
Predictably, interviews with Dylan are nowhere to be found in “Flood,” but the British film’s unusually studious array of talking heads also includes Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis as well as Barney Hoskyns, whose 2006 book “Across the Great Divide” definitively profiles the group that jammed with Dylan in the basement of a big pink house in Woodstock and soon thereafter became the Band.
Spanning the decade between Dylan’s ferocious shows of ’66 to his rejoining the Band in ’76 for “The Last Waltz,” the doc features plenty of revelatory footage and music without quite putting its finger on what makes the Hibbing-bred man so complicated and elusive — which is just as it should be.
In the spirit of “Invisible Republic,” the aptly wandering Basement Tapes tome by supreme Dylanologist Greil Marcus, “Down in the Flood” suggests that the truest way to find Bob Dylan is to look not where he is, but where he’s not.
Also notable on VOD
On the subject of another pop artist who fancies himself omnipotent: Christopher Nolan, director of the “Dark Knight” trilogy, defies digitization by opening his new and purportedly spiritual “Interstellar” in celluloid form on Tuesday, some 48 hours before the multiplex release in HD on Thursday night.
Obviously, “Interstellar” won’t be streamable online for many moons, but, in the meantime, there’s “Side by Side” (Amazon and Netflix), a documentary about the histories of film and video in which the pro-photochemical Nolan stubbornly opines, “No credible source really has been claiming to have invented something that is aesthetically superior to film at this point.”
Made and released in 2012, “Side by Side” — which idealistically pictures the peaceful coexistence of digital video and celluloid — has become downright spooky in 2014 for the fact of HD’s overwhelming dominance over film in the past two years. As Nolan himself would likely admit, to make and project a film on film these days, you practically need to be God.
Send questions or comments to Rob Nelson at VODcolumn@gmail.com.
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