For casual fans of Bob Dylan and The Band, the 1975 album The Basement Tapes is an essential piece of rock history: a belated document of what Dylan and some members of his touring band were up to during the spring and summer of 1967 in Woodstock, New York, while taking a break from living in public. But to devout Dylan-ologists, The Basement Tapes is just a snapshot of what happened in Woodstock—and a retouched snapshot at that. As the recently released Basement Tapes Complete box set makes clear, Dylan and the musicians who’d become The Band knocked out more than 100 songs at the house in the country that they called Big Pink, starting with off-the-cuff covers of folk and country favorites before moving on to the inspired Dylan originals that make up the bulk of the 1975 record. After he’d spent a few weeks warming up, Dylan began writing weird, funny lyrics, which he and The Band would record almost immediately, with minimal instrumentation and not much rehearsal. The 1975 version of The Basement Tapes adds some unrelated Band songs, and some overdubs that honor the spirit of the Big Pink recordings but don’t really replicate the rough, spare sound. It’s still a great album—and still essential—but it doesn’t tell the full story.
Sam Jones’ documentary Lost Songs: The Basement Tapes Continued—like the project it’s covering—is more akin to the 1975 Basement Tapes than the 1967 one. The film feels adulterated and incomplete. And the album that Lost Songs is about is so far removed in approach and intent from what Bob Dylan and The Band did that everyone involved with the new record keeps defaulting to apologetic throughout the doc.
But the music? It’s very good. The story is this: In 1966, at the height of his cultural influence, Bob Dylan had a motorcycle accident, and disappeared into the wilds of New York state to recover. Before he started making his home recordings with The Band, Dylan wrote pages and pages of lyrics that he never set to music. When the box of handwritten lyrics turned up again, Dylan and his publisher offered them to producer, folklorist, and former Dylan sideman T Bone Burnett, asking if he could make them into songs (similar to how Billy Bragg and Wilco turned some old Woody Guthrie fragments into Mermaid Avenue). Burnett sent copies of the pages to his friend and frequent collaborator Elvis Costello, along with Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Rhiannon Giddens of Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes. The members of this makeshift band—dubbed “The New Basement Tapes”—picked the words that spoke to them, brought some melodies to the studio, and banged out a record called Lost On The River in a few weeks, sometimes taking different approaches to the same songs.
Jones—best known for the 2002 Wilco documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart—has a lot of material to work with here. In addition to the footage of the Lost On The River sessions, Jones has audio interviews with Bob Dylan and some of the members of The Band talking about the original Basement Tapes recordings, and lo-fi recreations (with actors) of what those Big Pink days were like. Frankly, Jones doesn’t assemble it all cleanly. It takes way too long to get to The New Basement Tapes songs, and during the delay, Jones kills time by letting each of the band members platitudinize blandly about Dylan and The Basement Tapes. Meanwhile, the Dylan side of the story gets a light treatment, only briefly touching on how the original recordings became one of the first bootlegs, and inspired some outstanding cover versions well before the official 1975 album came out. (Really, The Basement Tapes deserves a two-hour documentary all on its own.)
But the biggest issue with Lost Songs is that it’s hard to shake the sense that it’s merely promotional—designed to be tacked on to some future special edition of Lost On The River. Jones’ I Am Trying To Break Your Heart captured the internal conflict and creative paralysis that can derail a band, but Lost On The River is almost uniformly positive. There’s some general sheepishness about the undeniable differences between Dylan and The Band recording songs in a basement that they didn’t expect anyone to hear and The New Basement Tapes working in a state-of-the-art studio to make something they knew would be hyped and scrutinized. And there are fleeting moments of discord and self-doubt, as these five very different musicians—plus Burnett—sometimes can’t agree on how to proceed with a song, or as they privately express some anxiety about whether they’re contributing enough. (Giddens and Mumford in particular seem disappointed that there’s not more spontaneity and collaboration.) But for the most part, Lost Songs feels like a 106-minute commercial.
It’s a good thing, then, that the product is so superior. As Costello points out at the end of the film, everyone involved with this project went into it fully aware that some people were going to nitpick it, but that didn’t bother them, because their goal was to replicate the spirit of joy, soulfulness, and familial connection on The Basement Tapes. (Goldsmith says that listening to The Basement Tapes and watching The Monkees as a kid skewed his whole perception of what it means to be in a band.) And danged if Burnett and company didn’t come away with some beautiful songs: a winning mix of sweet and scruffy, performed with as much natural interplay and give-and-take as they could muster.
Burnett admits that he took on this assignment because he couldn’t resist “the chance to collaborate with a 27-year-old Bob Dylan.” While the end result feels very much like one of the soundtracks Burnett has assembled for the Coen brothers—like O Brother, Where Art Thou? or Inside Llewyn Davis—those are great soundtracks, and Lost On The River is a fine piece of work, too. That’s part of what makes Lost Songs a mild letdown: It doesn’t do full justice to any of the albums it documents.