Bob Dylan. Shadow Kingdom: The Early Songs of Bob Dylan.
REVIEW by Nathan Schmidt, Indiana University Bloomington
“Someday, everything is going to be beautiful / When I paint my masterpiece.”
Is there a clearer expression of an artist’s highest aspiration? “When I finish this great work I have started, everything is going to be beautiful. The world will feel right with itself.” These lines from Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece” put me in mind of Don Quixote’s impossible dream of a fantastic world, endlessly romantic, forever deferred. As Dylan’s song reminds us, in some ways this goal is most compelling when it is furthest out of reach, or when something like a global pandemic disrupts the cycles of artistic production. “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” even though it may not be the most well-known song in Dylan’s repertoire, is a compelling opener for his concert film, Shadow Kingdom: The Early Songs of Bob Dylan. The song had already undergone a handful of lyric changes between its first release, on 1971’s Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. II, and the version on Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait (1969-71); in the first version, Dylan has a date with “a pretty little girl from Greece,” while in the second, his date is with “Botticelli’s niece,” emphasizing his off-kilter sense of humor. Tellingly, in the Shadow Kingdom version, no one else is there at all: “Gonna lock the doors and turn my back on the world for a while / I’ll stay right there ‘til I paint my masterpiece.” Even though Dylan’s music maintains a reputation for being timeless, it would seem that not even he has remained immune to the sense of isolation and anxiety that accompanies pandemic-era life, even if the new lyrics make it sound like turning his back on the world is the artist’s own choice. Where other artists frequently take time during a livestream to address the audience directly, grappling with how strange it is to be playing to no one and everyone at once, Dylan puts it right there in the lyrics to his opening song: the Grecian girls and Botticelli’s relations are gone, in favor of contemplative silence and solitude.
I could be wrong, but the strong impression that I take from the lyrics is that this masterpiece is never going to actually get painted. Like the elusive life-changing moment in Henry James’s novella “The Beast in the Jungle,” the masterpiece is always the next thing to happen, the artist’s forthcoming statement. However, I am willing to concede that in Shadow Kingdom Dylan comes about as close to the opening song’s hypothetical masterpiece as anyone would dare. The film was released on July 18, 2021 on Veeps, a streaming platform specifically for musical performances. The first announcement of the event prompted broad speculation about what it would be, since the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic had kept Dylan from sharing the songs from his 2020 album Rough and Rowdy Ways on his Never Ending Tour. All these years into his career, though, nobody knows what Bob Dylan is going to do next, and it is hard to imagine anyone logging in to the stream without feeling a little surprised. The trailer for the concert featured Dylan singing “Watching the River Flow,” which was recorded during the same session as “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and has nothing to do with Rough and Rowdy Ways; Shadow Kingdom turned out to be a set of stripped-down versions of songs that were originally recorded between 1965 and 1989 and were re-recorded for this black and white concert film. Rather than simply streaming a live performance of the songs, Dylan and his co-creators spent a week recording the music ahead of time and turning the performance into a dreamlike piece of cinema.
Upon release, Shadow Kingdom garnered favorable comparisons to the work of the American auteur David Lynch. For one thing, Shadow Kingdom repeatedly employs the motif of a checkerboard tiled floor, which will be familiar to fans of Lynch’s Twin Peaks as the setting for the liminal place known as the Black Lodge. Rather than emphasizing the fact that a streamed show like this plays to everyone and no one, Dylan leaned into the fact that it could be happening anywhere—or nowhere. The closing credits thank “The Bon Bon Club in Marseille,” which is definitely a fictional place, masking the fact that the film was shot in Santa Monica. The interior of the so-called Bon Bon Club shares some aesthetic resonances with the Roadhouse, the famous bar in which many of Twin Peaks’s most memorable moments take place. At the Roadhouse, and at the Bon Bon Club, the music seems to simply “happen” to the patrons. In these fictional worlds, maybe people are there to see it on purpose, or maybe people are just there to have a good time and listen to the house band play, but the music asserts itself as a fundamental part of the space that draws everyone together under its spell. In Shadow Kingdom’s bluesy, danceable version of “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” two women from the audience stand next to Dylan, nearly motionless, simply staring into the camera; this particularly Lynchian move draws viewers in and estranges them at the same time, which essentially describes the whole experience of watching Shadow Kingdom. Both the Bon Bon Club and the Roadhouse draw upon an almost Gothic sense of placelessness to emphasize that the music is not taking place anywhere that is supposed to emulate a real-world bar or club. Rather, both venues are the dive bar that we carry in our heads, the gently unsettling heaven that Dylan and his fans might go to when we pass beyond this mortal coil, where a melancholy glance over a bottle of something inexpensive is always a little hazy with cigarette smoke, soundtracked by a twangy guitar. Watching Shadow Kingdom is like listening to the band in heaven playing your favorite song in a place where nothing else ever happens, as David Byrne put it in the Talking Heads song “Heaven.”
The powerful, trance-inducing cinematography of Shadow Kingdom is the work of director Alma Har’el, joined by producers Christopher Leggett and Rafael Marmor, who worked both on Shadow Kingdom and on Har’el’s feature-length debut, Honey Boy. Har’el’s distinctive style and interest in the borders between dream and reality come through clearly in Honey Boy, especially in scenes depicting motorcycle rides and movie sets, but the clearest precedents for her work on Shadow Kingdom are in her two music videos. Her visual accompaniments for “Fjögur Píanó” by the Icelandic new age/post-rock band Sigur Rós, and “Elephant Gun” by the freewheeling indie band Beirut, both rely on surreal imagery and imaginary locations to represent the emotional heart of the songs in question. “Fjögur Píanó” stars Shia LaBeouf and Denna Thomsen on a psychosexual journey in a hotel room with walls covered in mounted butterflies, while “Elephant Gun” features Beirut singer Zach Condon singing and playing his way through a tusk-themed masquerade party. Both shorts imagine music as something otherworldly, intangible, and a little bit dangerous; something that stretches the boundaries of the mundane world to their breaking point. Shadow Kingdom is a little more laid back than Har’el’s other work, but it still emphasizes music’s ability to transport us from the everyday to a place with a dense internal logic of its own.
The film opens with a harmonica that nobody is playing. This is easy to see, because all of the band members but Dylan are wearing matching black masks that cover their mouths and noses, and Dylan is playing the guitar without wearing a harmonica—a sly suggestion that, right from the beginning, the viewer is not about to see a performance of “live” music in any traditional sense of the word. Har’el, Dylan, and the band engage playfully the various performative aspects that pandemic-era artists have used to make a live streamed show feel like a live show by, in a literal sense, staging everything. Even the music that the band appears to perform is not actually being created at that moment, but is a pantomime of something already played. The film embraces this performativity without trying to hide it, showing a guitarist’s hands playing different notes from what the viewer hears and refusing to put microphones in front of anyone but Dylan. Rather than asking the audience to accept what is happening on screen as a substitute for a live concert experience, Shadow Kingdom demands to be seen for what it is—not a concert, but a film that refuses to pretend it is anything other than scripted and staged.
This stylization extends all the way to the masks worn by the band members. In the world of the film, these masks represent not just public health but artistic choice. The title Shadow Kingdom seems to most likely be a reference to a short story by pulp fantasy author Robert E. Howard, best known as the creator of Conan the Barbarian. Before Conan, there was Kull, the Atlantean king of Valusia, whose court is set upon by shape-shifters that in their natural state take the form of reptilian humanoids. The story shares the masculinist tropes and crassly romanticized primitivism of its pulp counterparts, and it has unfortunately become the backbone of a pernicious real-world conspiracy theory. However, at the center of Howard’s story is an idea about masks, and how humans hide behind them even when there are no imaginary snake-people underneath. “After all,” the story says, “the priests of the Serpent went a step further in their magic, for all men wore masks, and many a different mask with each different man or woman; and Kull wondered if a serpent did not lurk under every mask.” As in the film Shadow Kingdom, the boundaries between reality and impossibility are blurred, leaving Kull to make his best guess about what is real and what has been cleverly disguised.
This motif of masks that both obscure the wearer and reveal a deeper truth has appeared many other times in Dylan’s career, too. In his 1964 performance on Halloween night in New York, he told the audience that he had his “Bob Dylan mask on,” that he was simply “in masquerade.” Dylan also painted himself up in whiteface for the tour that was represented in Martin Scorcese’s film Rolling Thunder Revue, and it is easy to see the Shadow Kingdom stage as the inverse of the stage on the Rolling Thunder tour, with the performers, rather than Dylan, playing with their faces obscured. He called his critically polarizing 2003 film with Larry Charles Masked and Anonymous, and he even penned that film under the pseudonym “Sergei Petrov.” Dylan, in other words, has spent decades thinking about masks and their symbolism, about alter-egos and the meaning of performance. Therefore, although I would have expected for the performers to be wearing masks in the first place, they also become a symbol for the strange new Shadow Kingdom in which we have learned to live alongside each other over the past two years. Since none of this is real, Shadow Kingdom’s masked band and unmasked audience members signify the duality of the way things are and the way they used to be, the musicians outfitted with a symbol of the present, while the audience calls us back to a past that is now only possible on a closed movie set for a concert that was recorded ahead of time. Most of us may have gotten used to wearing masks in public, but Dylan’s film asks for the audience to reflect on what the “new normal” reveals about ourselves and each other. Do we ever really know who is behind that covered face? On the other hand, as Dylan said in the similarly reality-blurring Rolling Thunder Revue, “When someone’s wearing a mask, he’s gonna tell you the truth,” so it may be that the Shadow Kingdom invented by the film is meant to be truer to life than the everyday world and the interpretive baggage we carry into it.
Throughout the film, the audience gets a number of different views of the Bon Bon Club, with the band stationed in different places and shot from different angles to the degree that it becomes difficult to imagine it all as a single contained space. These cinematic choices make the club feel tiny and gigantic at the same time, although a handful of recurring visual motifs tie the room together (as noted Dylan aficionados the Coen brothers might say). A dusty air conditioning unit with small colorful streamers blowing out of it makes an appearance in a number of shots, and almost every shot is dominated by clouds of cigarette smoke, except for the three songs on which the fifteen-person “audience” does not appear. Some songs are shot with the camera focused only on the band, while others are so far away from the stage that members of the audience frequently walk in front of the camera, obscuring the view of the stage. This audience, which like the Shadow Kingdom band is relatively young and racially diverse, is outfitted with clothing both nostalgic and timeless, in simple but elegant summer dresses or in jackets and fedoras—a look just dusty enough to avoid mobster movie pastiche, put together by Natasha Newman-Thomas, who also designed the outfits in the powerful and inescapable music video for Childish Gambino’s song “This Is America.” The film’s aesthetic hinges on its ability to fabricate an audience and a concert that takes place, not in any particular club or dive bar, but in a place that tantalizes the imagination of a viewer who is longing to enjoy live music again. On the other hand, the aspects of the place that feel unhinged from time and space echo the feeling of spending yet another day in limbo inside my house, unable to remember what day of the week it is.
As a cinematic work, Shadow Kingdom is by turns haunting and mesmerizing. Musically, it reproduces a particular era in Dylan’s sound, but mellows it out with new arrangements that are better suited to its imaginary setting. The new, mostly acoustic arrangements rely heavily on acoustic guitar and mandolin, with the occasional fill or flourish on the electric guitar, while the rhythm is mostly carried by a double bass and an accordion, although an electric bass also makes an appearance. Dylan brought together a world-class group of young musicians for this performance, including Alex Burke, bassists Janie Cowen and Joshua Crumbly, Buck Meek, who released a solo album this year and also plays in the indie rock band Big Thief, and multi- instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily. The musicians trade roles throughout the set, and it can be difficult to parse who is playing what at any given time, especially because of the masks that obscure the performers’ faces. Dylan appears to play the acoustic guitar and the harmonica on a few of the pieces, departing from the piano which has been his staple on his most recent tours, although the suspended reality of the set allows room for ambiguity around whose strumming is actually being heard. His vocal performance is one of the best that he has given in years, ranging from a gruff roar on “Watching the River Flow” to a restrained simmer on “What Was It You Wanted?”
“When I Paint My Masterpiece” is both the aesthetic and the musical introduction to the show, with the camera focusing on Dylan and his guitar while lights from behind him provide a muted bokeh effect in grayscale. The rest of the musicians are mostly off camera, apart from a glimpse of an accordion and a mandolin, while two seated audience members smoke and sway to the music in their seats. No one touches the upturned hat and half-finished drink on the table next to Dylan, making it seem as if a mysterious figure perched just outside the frame has already settled in and made themselves comfortable. Har’el’s restrained camera work makes for relatively few changes in visual perspective during the songs, which, although the film is heavily stylized, frequently mirrors the experience of sitting still and watching a concert. Title cards between the songs operate as visual transitions between different parts of the set, while the pre-recorded nature of the performance allows the music to flow, for the most part, in an unbroken stream.
The title for Blonde on Blonde’s “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)” appears on the screen for a moment, shorn of its parenthetical phrase, before the band swings into a blues rock groove that maintains the gusto of the original, even in the absence of percussion. Dylan commands the stage, toying with the microphone stand and gesticulating like a street preacher. A sideways shift in camera perspective brings the window of the Bon Bon Club into the frame, its half-closed blinds obscuring the world beyond the fantasy of the set. At times there was so much smoke on the screen that I began to wonder if the cigarettes were props, but I also saw some of the actors inhaling them—the fact that this even crossed my mind suggests how masterfully Shadow Kingdom straddles the boundary between fantasy and realism. At the risk of stirring up intrigue where there may be none, the camera lingers near the end of the song on the back of a seated audience member who I could swear is really a mannequin or a statue.
The next song, Highway 61 Revisted’s “Queen Jane Approximately,” also has its title truncated, in this case down to just “Queen Jane.” The set for this song is the one that most immediately recalls David Lynch, with Dylan off to the side behind an old-fashioned microphone stand and the rest of the band casting shadows across the tiled floor. Even though this is only the third song in the setlist, the absence of the audience makes it feel like a glimpse into an after- hours rehearsal, with Dylan and the band playing together for fun. In its Shadow Kingdom permutation, “Queen Jane” becomes a tender ballad, calmer and more warmhearted than the bouncy, organ-driven original. On the other hand, “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” (from John Wesley Harding) is no longer a soft country ballad, but a full-on rocker with a bluesy bassline. Two women from the audience stand next to Dylan and stare into the camera, occasionally smiling or brushing his shoulder—the film’s most visually obvious surreal moment so far.
Two other “blues” follow, both from Highway 61 Revisited: “Tom Thumb’s Blues” (no longer “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”) and “Tombstone Blues.” “Tom Thumb’s Blues” is jaunty and laid-back, driven by a staccato accordion and a bright, crisp lead on the electric guitar. In contrast to “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” the camera pivots here to focus on a group of men seated beneath the window at stage left—and, like the women from the previous shot, they carry a strong sense of presence while moving very little. Most of them do not even look directly at Dylan or the band; maybe these characters are tired from a day at work, or perhaps they are letting the music carry them into some personal reverie. I can’t help but wonder how much of this setting is aspirational for Dylan, if there’s some part of him that would like to fade into the background at a tiny club again, in a way that would be impossible for him now in the real world. It’s only at the Bon Bon Club that Bob Dylan gets to be comfortably ignored. “Tombstone Blues” returns to the checker-tiled setting of “Queen Jane,” where Dylan’s singing and the band’s musical accompaniment trade bars in a style reminiscent of call-and-response Gospel.
“Tombstone Blues” is the last Highway 61 Revisited song on the setlist. Dylan follows it up with “To Be Alone with You,” from Nashville Skyline, and “What Was It You Wanted” from Oh Mercy, which, having coming out in 1989, is the newest song to be counted among “the early songs of Bob Dylan.” “To Be Alone with You” gives the viewer a good angle of most of the band, and—if the instruments shown on screen are to be believed—employs three different acoustic guitar parts. Even without the barroom piano, which sits neglected directly behind the band on the stage, this song stays closest to the album rendition fans already know, in a set of songs that take pleasure in drastic changes of mood and tempo from the originals. “What Was It You Wanted,” in the absence of the album version’s driving percussion, becomes a haunting minor-key ballad which Dylan whispers from a stool set up beneath the Bon Bon Club’s decrepit wall-mounted air conditioning unit.
After “What Was It You Wanted” and its lonesome melancholy, “Forever Young” (from 1974’s Planet Waves) comes across a little perfunctory and saccharine—a quality the tinkly dolceola does little to alleviate. It seems well within the realm of possibility that Dylan is being cheeky by staging this one in a dark room with a single spotlight sparkling off of his angel-white suit jacket, holding a guitar that he barely plays, but this performance is difficult to take as seriously as some of the other songs. Fortunately, “Forever Young” is followed by Blonde on Blonde’s “Pledging My Time,” which features some of the film’s strongest music and cinematography. In the world of Shadow Kingdom, “Pledging My Time” becomes a slow dance number that focuses on the crowd in a mode of stately dilapidation, swaying together with beer bottles and cigarettes in hand. As in the rest of the film, the setting is idealized—I have never seen a small club show where people who are inebriated enough to dance with their beer bottles still show the music the kind of respectful attention shown here—but this song showcases most directly the sense of something both staged and incidental that makes the film so special. Streamers and paper chains cover the stage, casting the club in an aura of ramshackle celebration.
The show closes with “Wicked Messenger,” “Watching the River Flow,” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” (changed to “Baby Blue” on the title card). “Wicked Messenger” (the second song in the set off John Wesley Harding) stands out from the others by shooting the band from a low angle that leaves much of the stage obscured by the audience’s heads, until the electric guitarist steps in front of the camera to deliver the lick that binds the verses together. The guitarist’s interruption weaves something jocular into a song that is otherwise deadly serious. “Watching the River Flow” brings back the blues-rock trappings of the set’s earlier songs, and shows the audience smiling, dancing, and—a first for Shadow Kingdom—applauding at the end. The lines, “Daylight sneaking through the window / And I’m still in this all-night café,” ring especially true on the smoke-obscured stage of the Bon Bon Club, which looks and feels so unmoored from the bonds of time. “Baby Blue” (from Bringing It All Back Home), shot yet again on the set with the checkerboard tiles, slowly and sweetly informs the viewer that “it’s all over now,” as the band strums along quietly just behind the pace of Dylan’s free-flowing lines.
To what extent, then, does Shadow Kingdom represent Bob Dylan’s “early songs?” Chronologically, the claim holds true, with the arguable exception of “What Was It You Wanted.” Many of the songs are from albums released during the years that Greatest Hits: Vol. II spans, from 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home to 1969’s Nashville Skyline, and Planet Waves came shortly after, in 1974. Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde famously share a related debt to the stylings of rock and blues, although the decade that the songs on Shadow Kingdom span contained more stylistic fluctuations than the film’s cohesiveness is able to convey. Many of these would not be the first to come to mind to viewers mostly acquainted with Dylan’s famous early folk songs—there is no “Girl From the North Country” or “Blowin’ in the Wind” here—but they paint a strong picture of a time when Dylan was experimenting with new worlds of possibility. One particularly striking thing about the arrangements on Shadow Kingdom is how effective they are in the absence of any percussion, even though drums were at the center of almost all the studio versions of these songs. In many cases, what was once jangly and strident has now become comfortably warm, the rough edges polished by time and use to shine anew.
We can only speculate on what led Dylan to make a film of these early songs in 2021, rather than using the songs from the album he had just released in the previous year and never toured behind. Possibly, he wanted to reserve the new songs for new performances in a truly live setting. If I were to wager a guess, though, I would say that Bob Dylan went through something similar to what we all went through in the year 2020 and found himself trying to balance a sense of being unmoored in time with the ruthless particularity of the now. A savvy reader will have already noticed the lyric change in the epigraph above: in all its previous permutations, the last lines of “When I Paint My Masterpiece” have been about how someday everything will be “different.” In this most recent version, Dylan sets his sights even higher. Now, when he finishes his masterpiece, everything will be beautiful. That may be a bit more than any of us would dare to hope for right now, but after spending some time in the Shadow Kingdom, I want him, more than ever, to be right.