By Jeff Burger
The film Masked and Anonymous—which first appeared in 2003 and has just been reissued on Blu-ray—boasts a list of credits that would make most any movie fan sit up and take notice. The cast includes such household names as Jeff Bridges, Jessica Lange, John Goodman, Penelope Cruz, Angela Bassett, Bruce Dern, Mickey Rourke, Ed Harris, and—in the starring role—Bob Dylan. Dylan also provides nearly all of the soundtrack’s compositions and some of the musical performances; and, using a pseudonym, he cowrote the script with first-time director Larry Charles, who went on to direct movies like Borat and Religulous and write episodes of TV series such as Seinfeld, Mad About You, and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
With all this talent on board, you might expect big things, but the movie didn’t exactly get a standing ovation from the critics. A representative sampling:
- “[The] misguided cast…is simply painful to watch as the doomed vehicle it’s trapped in comes whistling toward a fiery crash landing.” —Michael O’Sullivan, Washington Post
- “The film is a train wreck and an overbearing train wreck at that.” —Ty Burr, Boston Globe
- “A vanity production beyond all reason.” Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
- “A strong contender for the worst movie of the century.” —Lou Lumenick, New York Post
Not surprisingly, given reviews like these, the film was a box-office flop, grossing only about $500,000, far less than its modest production budget of a few million dollars.
So why is Masked and Anonymous being reissued this month with DTS-HD Master sound and bonus features that include a new interview with director Charles? I wish I could say the answer is that the years have been kind to the movie and that, like such Dylan projects as Self-Portrait, it plays a bit better today than it did initially. In fact, it’s still more or less a train wreck. But it’s a train wreck with benefits—a mess but, as a few of the early critics noted, a sometimes fascinating one.
The plot is sketchy, to put it mildly. Dylan plays Jack Fate, an enigmatic singer/songwriter who seems a whole lot like a certain other enigmatic songwriter. Sprung from prison by a concert promoter named Uncle Sweetheart, he is supposed to perform at a show to benefit victims of a vaguely described revolution that has turned America into what looks like a hellish third-world country. Fate encounters assorted strange characters in the course of the movie, including a clueless reporter (played by Bridges) who will make you think of Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man.”
The surrealistic script—which reads like something Dylan and Charles wrote while stoned—is loaded with in jokes and musical references that will entertain some people and leave others baffled. At one point, Uncle Sweetheart conjures up Herman’s Hermits when he introduces a woman to Jack Fate by saying, “This is Mrs. Brown, and she’s got a lovely daughter.” (The child then breaks into a stirring rendition of “The Times They Are a-Changin’”.) In another scene, two characters discuss the meaning of Dylan’s “Drifter’s Escape.”
It’s all a bit reminiscent of Firesign Theatre, filmmaker David Lynch, and the dialogue in Frank Zappa’s Lumpy Gravy, but even more akin to such cinematic Dylan classics as “Desolation Row,” “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts,” and “Highlands”—all of which worked great as songs but would likely have been as convoluted as Masked and Anonymous if someone had tried to turn them into screenplays.
Dylan fans will nevertheless find noteworthy—and often smile-worthy—lines sprinkled throughout the film. But it’s when the dialogue stops and the music starts that the movie has the most to offer, and fortunately, that happens quite a lot. Dylan serves up terrific live performances of about half a dozen numbers, including “Diamond Joe,” “Down in the Flood,” and “Cold Irons Bound.” And the soundtrack includes excellent interpretations of material from throughout his career by a motley group of artists, some luminous, some obscure. The Grateful Dead deliver “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” Jerry Garcia does “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power),” and Los Lobos cover “On a Night Like This,” while Articolo 31, an Italian hip-hop group, offer “Like a Rolling Stone” and Francesco De Gregori, another Italian artist, sings “If You See Her, Say Hello” in his native tongue.
Director Charles—who calls the movie an “apocalyptic science fiction spaghetti western musical comedy”—says that “this whole thing has been about process and never the result,” which perhaps hints at one reason why it falls short: it seems nobody stopped to think that it all ought to add up to something comprehensible.
At one point in the movie, a character says she loves Jack Fate’s songs “’cause they’re not precise. They’re emotionally ambiguous…They invite different interpretation.” That is in fact part of the appeal of Dylan’s music. But in this movie, ambiguity is carried to an extreme, the characters often seem like caricatures, and the razor-thin plot presents much bigger problems than it would in a song.
As such, Masked and Anonymous is likely to disappoint even those who appreciate its music and the dry wit of some of Dylan’s dialogue. But the confusing storyline might be just fine with Dylan himself. After all, his last line in the film is a voiceover in which he proclaims, “I stopped trying to figure everything out a long time ago.”
Carla Olson, Have Harmony, Will Travel 2. Carla Olson, who formed the Textones in 1978 and has subsequently worked as a solo performer, band leader, and producer, has crossed paths with lots of other artists during her long career. Many of them appear on this consistently engaging collection of pop-flavored alt-country duets, a sequel to a 2013 release.
The album is remarkably cohesive considering the diversity of the crew that shares center stage with Olson, among them the Long Ryders’ Stephen McCarthy (Patty Loveless’s “Timber, I’m Falling in Love”), the Eagles’ Timothy B. Schmit (Buffalo Springfield’s “A Child’s Claim to Fame”), Herman’s Hermits’ Peter Noone (the Searchers’ “Goodbye My Love”), and British vocalist Terry Reid (“Scarlet Ribbons”). There are also four excellent archival recordings, including ones with the Byrds’ Gene Clark, who died in 1991, and the late, great R&B/soul singer Percy Sledge.
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.