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A film, starring Bob Dylan and many others; directed by Larry Charles, released in July of 2003.

One of the local rags that calls itself a newspaper gave this film the astonishing rating of ZERO STARS. Bob Dylan movies seem to be automatically written off as rambling, long-winded, self-indulgent pieces of crap. And yes, Masked and Anonymous is just that. But Dylan is held to a different standard, obviously, than Adam Sandler or Mandy Moore or whoever the hell else (I don't know who makes movies these days because I hate movies).

Dylan's movies are pre-supposed to be as good as his songs-- it's impossible. He can never live up to that. And, at least in the first hour or so, this movie does poke fun at its own expectations. When Dylan's character, Jack Fate, is sprung from prison to play a benefit concert, someone asks (paraphrase): "Why couldn't we have gotten Sting, or Springsteen, or Billy Joel, or McCartney?"-- that is, someone who will please the crowd, instead of showing up looking half-dead and running through unrecognizable versions of his less familiar songs, backed by a bunch of hairy-handed gents dressed in black who seem to think they're the String Quartet From Whisky Boot Hill. In one of the movie's better decisions, Dylan's band plays themselves.

A summary of the plot won't spoil this, as anyone who cares has probably already gotten it off of Dylan's website. It's the future, and the United States has been transformed into a banana republic torn by revolutions and counter-revolutions. Dylan (sorry, I mean "Jack Fate") is bailed out of prison to play a rather unwholesome benefit organized by his manager Uncle Sweetheart (the excellent John Goodman) and a television producer played by Jessica Lange (what, they couldn't get Faye Dunaway?).

Most of the action takes place during rehearsals for the benefit. A gonzo journalist (Jeff Bridges) crashes the proceedings with his wacked-out hippie girlfriend (Penelope Cruz, also excellent, and excellently named Pagan Lace). Bridges persists in asking Dylan questions about everyone else but him. It's a reversal of the Dylan who tortured journalists in the 1960's-- this time he's being badgered with inane questions about Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. Bridges even asks why Dylan wasn't at Woodstock. Dylan plays a few songs. He sounds terrific (better than he really does, in fact). No obvious choices-- a heartbreaking I'll Remember You, a raucous Down in the Flood, an old folk song called Diamond Joe, and... Dixie. Yeah, that's "Well, I wish I was in the land of cotton" Dixie. Dylan reminding us that he knows all kinds of songs. He also performs Drifter's Escape and Cold Irons Bound.

The soundtrack is worthy of mention. It's probably the best thing about the movie, though some of the omissions are disappointing-- I'll Remember You and the closing, never-released version of Blowin' In The Wind are both absent. What's left is still pretty damned good. Mostly covers of Dylan, but not the typical, Joan Baez, interpretations-- My Back Pages sung in Japanese, rocking eleven times as hard as The Byrds did. That's the Magokoro Brothers. There's an Italian rap song that uses Like A Rolling Stone as its foundation, complete with Dylan singing the choruses while guys rap in Italian over him. That's Articolo 31. There's a few other strange treasures, plus the slightly more familiar inclusions of Jerry Garcia (once with the Dead, once without), and Los Lobos.

The sheer number of good actors Dylan and Larry Charles manages to line up is also impressive. Smaller parts go to Cheech Marin, Giovanni Ribisi as a man who sits next to Dylan on a bus and talks his ear off, Mickey Rourke back from god-knows-where looking like a Werewolf of London, Angela Bassett, Luke Wilson, Val Kilmer as a mystical snake wrangler, etc.

The comic elements of the film tend to be more effective than the more serious elements. Without knowing for certain, I'm going to assume that Dylan wrote most of the dialogue. It sounds like him. Lots of insignificant talk masquerading as great portentous significance. Dylan was once a master of this, but as the movie itself keeps pointing out, he ain't what he used to be. When the film pokes fun at itself, or in the few light-hearted moments, it's quite tolerable. But too often, it drifts. Too often, it relies too heavily on Dylan to carry it. Dylan himself gives a credible performance-- he's playing himself, after all, how hard can that be?-- and only seems uncomfortable during the songs (not being from the Age of MTV, he really hasn't mastered the art of looking interested when the camera's on him), and during a thankfully aborted love scene with Angela Bassett. I didn't want to see Dylan try to raise the flag.

With a shorter running time and a less ridiculous ending, this would have been a very satisfying movie. As it is, try out this math. I paid $10, U.S., to see the film at my local too-cool-for-its-own-good independent theater. Dylan is playing a concert a few miles away later this month, and tickets start at $77, pre-service-charges. So I got to see something at least half as good as a Dylan concert (six live performances, plus excellent soundtrack, plus John Goodman and the muy caliente Penelope Cruz, for about one-eighth of the money.

So, I win.

The soundtrack to this film is itself an interesting compilation of work. It features a Japanese version of My Back Pages and Italian versions of If You See Her, Say Hello and Like A Rolling Stone. A Turkish artist's take on One More Cup of Coffee is quite nice. One of Dylan's favorite bands The Grateful Dead make an appearance as does a Jerry Garcia solo version of Senor which makes the heart to cry out loud.

Dylan himself contributes new version of Cold Irons Bound and Down in the Flood recorded with his current touring band.

This is a great tribute to the man who will one day go down in history as the 20th centruy Dylan Thomas.

1. My Back Pages - Magokoro Brothers
2. Gotta Serve Somebody - Shirley Caesar
3. Down In The Flood - Bob Dylan
4. It's All Over Now, Baby Blue - The Grateful Dead
5. Most Of The Time - Sophie Zelmani
6. On A Night Like This - Los Lobos
7. Diamond Joe - Bob Dylan
8. Come Una Pietra Scalciata (Like A Rolling Stone) - Articolo 31
9. One More Cup Of Coffee - Sertab
10. Non Dirle Che Non E' Cosi' (If You See Her, Say Hello) - Francesco De Gregori
11. Dixie - Bob Dylan
12. Senor (Tales Of Yankee Power) - Jerry Garcia
13. Cold Irons Bound - Bob Dylan
14. City Of Gold - Dixie Hummingbirds

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