Bob Dylan’s new film Shadow Kingdom breaks new ground, after a fashion

Bob Dylan’s latest sleight of hand is the new “live concert” called Shadow Kingdom, that he did on July 18th 2021 - his first broadcast event this century (after MTV Unplugged in 1994). The $28.75 (including taxes) to watch it on livestream could not have been better spent for not just Dylan fans to choose to walk with him without entitlement, but anyone interested in what happens to great artists after they cross the threshold of retirement age.

It wasn’t a live show but a carefully choreographed, tastefully shot, music film. At times, the editor hasn’t even tried too hard to accomplish an exact synch between what’s playing and what you see. The Bon Bon Club in Marseille where this is supposed to have been shot does not exist. This show was advertised and then titled to feature “the early songs of Bob Dylan”. Not the case. Most of the songs are from the mid/late-sixties, his first decade as a performer, sure, but given his legendary prolificity before that, most definitely not “early period” songs. In fact, there are two tracks from the early-1970s, and most revealingly, one from 1989. In that 1989 track, that breaks every pattern (also the first time he has performed the song in this century), perhaps lies the key to understanding the film and its seemingly strange setting — more on that in a bit. False details are not new in the Bob Dylan pantheon as the “truth” aimed for is of a larger kind.

The film, made by Israeli-American Alma Har’el, a music video and feature film director in her mid-forties, is shot in lush black-and-white. It is all of 50 minutes long and features Dylan performing 13 songs with a band. Most times, the camera stays still on the performance with very occasional short cutaways, turning its eye on proceedings in the environment only between songs, as what would actually happen.

Time stands still (with the clock perennially stuck at eleven minutes past ten) in a smoky, prohibition-era bar , when alcohol was illicit and therefore merged in an underground way with jazz music. These bars took root in 1920 and were called “speakeasies” for the secret password that had to be said in a low voice so that it could not be heard by law enforcement.

It’s a recreation of time in a very curious way, as 1920 is when the world, and America, emerged from the Spanish flu pandemic. The musicians playing in the film with familiar pandemic masks on may seem as contemporary as it could be but it is also a deft evocation of history repeating itself. The film recreates scenes with people around the music, audience-members enjoying their smoke and drink, hangers-on and the musicians themselves, perhaps invoking David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return visually. Aurally, it’s a Frank Sinatra vibe, but with a superbly oiled bluegrass band rendering the world’s greatest living artist’s songs, many less famous than others on that legendary songlist, but as timeless and brilliant. Most astonishingly, Dylan sounds better than he has anytime this century, timelessly so, just like he did on last year’s album Rough and Rowdy Ways, that at 79 was the best-reviewed album of his career. And also the album that the songs from this film resemble the most in their noir cabaret vibe.

Mandolin, accordion, guitar and bowed acoustic bass with a vocal lilt that goes with it perfectly — songs re-rendered to order showing their flexibility, classic qualities still intact demonstrating their timelessness. That unmistakable 80-year-old human voice redefining possibilities for this age, weight of living, wisdom of knowing, scars from both, still projected through a scarcely believable charge. The particularly affecting rendition of “Forever Young” here the most potent reminder that Dylan still knows how to inhabit his songs, even if from forty years ago, wholly in the present moment. Again, echoing the enormous achievement of Rough and Rowdy Ways and especially the song which which he broke new ground at 78. What Dylan is doing in the last quarter of his life is every bit as pathbreaking as what he did in the first quarter, though in a very different way (prolificity replaced by a different kind of depth). He is redefining human possibility yet again.

But what of the song that broke the pattern in this film? That 1989 song is called “What Was It You Wanted” from Oh Mercy — his first album after he re-emerged from his creative burnout. Could this provide the biggest cue to this film? Perhaps the smoky bar set-up of the entire concert has its roots in that story as well — it is at least the most evocative bar story that he has ever related (in Chronicles Vol 1 his autobiography), the most notable bar story in the Dylan mythology.

Before he recorded Oh Mercy, Dylan was going through a creative burnout. He felt he had said all he had to, and could not court the Muse anymore. Depressed and frustrated, he had actually given up and was coming to terms with retiring and some kind of alternate career away from music (he was still searching for what that could be). Still, he had commitments, and one of them was to tour with the Grateful Dead. During his very first rehearsal with them, he retreated on a false excuse because he couldn’t feel it anymore and was terrified of being exposed. While walking back to his hotel in the rain, he heard jazz sounds emanating from a tiny bar. He went in and noticed musicians playing at the back and described the rest thus (in Chronicles Vol 1):

“It was raining and there were few people inside. One of them was laughing at something. It looked like the last stop on the train to nowhere and the air was filled with cigarette smoke.” The band was playing jazz ballads, the singer was an older man — “He wasn’t very forceful, but he didn’t have to be; he was relaxed, but he sang with natural power. Suddenly and without warning, it was like the guy had an open window to my soul. It was like he was saying, ‘You should do it this way.’ All of a sudden, I understood something faster than I ever did before. I could feel how he worked at getting his power, what he was doing to get at it. I knew where the power was coming from and it wasn’t his voice, though the voice brought me sharply back to myself. I used to do this thing, I’m thinking.”

Atmospherically and musically, it’s almost as if Shadow Kingdom recreates that moment from the recesses of Dylan’s consciousness. Did it really happen? Was it a dream? The burnout was definitely real. The stunning comeback and return to peak form was too (the entire story is here). Do dreams actually exist? Is the muse real? Is it a coincidence that one of the most important songs in the Oh Mercy sessions (that perversely wasn’t included in the album eventually) was called “Series of Dreams”? Is it far-fetched to say that every song on that album addressed that missing muse (as early lyric versions suggest) and that the title reflected the glorious relief on finding it again?

Is “What Was It You Wanted” a song from from the point-of-view of the Muse, brusque and offhand on the Oh Mercy album but more understanding and tender now, 32 years later? Timelessness works like that perhaps.

Shadow Kingdom can be rented here for 48 hours till Wednesday, 22nd July, 12–30 pm IST.

Set List

  1. “When I Paint My Masterpiece”
    2. “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine”
    3. “Queen Jane Approximately”
    4. “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”
    5. “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”
    6. “Tombstone Blues”
    7. “To Be Alone With You”
    8. “What Was It You Wanted”
    9. “Forever Young”
    10. “Pledging My Time”
    11. “The Wicked Messenger”
    12. “Watching the River Flow”
    13. “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”