Capturing the creative process onscreen is always challenging, and Showtime’s “Lost Songs: The Basement Tapes Continued” at best fitfully succeeds. Built around producer T Bone Burnett’s effort to produce an album based on lyrics Bob Dylan wrote nearly 50 years ago, the project explores different approaches to songwriting, but as structured by director Sam Jones, suffers from an absence of Dylan’s presence, both then and now. The five artists participating do convey their passion regarding what’s described as a “once in a lifetime opportunity,” but the documentary provides a rather murky and narrow window into Dylan’s world.
Dylan’s double-album “The Basement Tapes,” recorded in the summer of 1967, has achieved a legendary status, and it was no doubt a heady experience to discover that the then-26-year-old singer wrote dozens of lyrics — in longhand, with scribbles and doodles around them — that he never bothered to set to music or record. (Dylan’s activities had been limited in large part by a motorcycle accident the year before, which forced him to cancel a concert tour.)
Armed with that archaeological treasure trove, Burnett brings together a disparate group of marquee musicians — Elvis Costello, Rhiannon Giddens (Carolina Chocolate Drops) Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes), Jim James (My Morning Jacket) and Marcus Mumford (Mumford & Sons) — in what amounts to a songwriting boot camp, designed to put their stamp on Dylan’s work.
The results, available in a just-released album, are eclectic, and in some instances beautiful — perhaps foremost Mumford’s interpretation, even if he laments being a tortoise in terms of the speed with which he pens songs compared with the others.
There’s a sense of playfulness as the artists swap ideas and riffs, but also insecurity, as they work against a tight deadline at the historic Capitol Records Studios.
For all that, what appears to be Dylan’s indifference toward the project is keenly felt — he’s heard only in a fleeting voiceover interview — and Jones’ attempts to replicate the history of “The Basement Tapes” falls flat. Instead of delving into the balladeer’s musical biography or digging up early footage to illustrate his accomplishments, the filmmakers offer grainy shots of actors to represent the era, with the Dylan figure lensed in silhouette or turned away from the camera. Not only does it feel like a reality-TV-type cheat, but it’s an unnecessary one at that.
That’s too bad, since there’s a lot to savor here, even for those who can’t name more than a few of Dylan’s signature songs. And while there’s obviously a commercial component to the enterprise, “Lost Songs” does fritter around the edges of something truly intriguing in regard to examining different styles of artistic inspiration.
As for actually finding its core, however well intentioned this effort might be, that answer’s still blowin’ in the wind.