Watching the various Dylans that parade and steal and strut and drift through Todd Haynes’s exhilarating I’m Not There, and watching the changes Dylan himself goes through in Murray Lerner’s The Other Side of the Mirror, which compiles his performances at the Newport Folk Festival from 1963 to 1965, you realize that there’s something profoundly beside the point about Bob Dylan covers. Dylan is his own cover band. The way he always reinvented himself and reinvented his songs (anyone remember the squalling, unrecognizable “Masters of War” he unleashed at the Grammy Awards as the first Gulf War was getting under way?) has, with some notable exceptions, stayed ahead of what most artists are able to wrest from his songs.
THAT WAS THEN: Dylan’s open, direct, funny appearance at Newport in 1963 set him up for the reverence and the hatred that followed.
The prize of the two-CD soundtrack to I’m Not There (Sony) is the title track, which Dylan and the Band recorded during the “Basement Tapes” sessions. Not only was it never officially released, but it’s among the scarcest of Dylan’s bootlegs. It’s an amazing performance — steady and plaintive — that holds at bay the drama building up in it, and Dylan’s voice has an almost keening edge. The song all but bookends the album, closing it and also providing the second track, a marvelous cover by Sonic Youth that captures that band’s knack (as on their version of the Carpenters’ “Superstar”) for paying homage to a source while providing their own song — in this case the charged aural drift that they have, over the years, staked out as the territory where they’re the chief explorers.
As with all tribute albums — which is what this soundtrack amounts to — some things work and some things don’t. And some things that seem just fine in the movie, like Richie Havens as a porch-front musician singing “Tombstone Blues,” don’t work so well when you put on the CD and realize you have to listen to . . . Richie Havens. “Ballad of a Thin Man,” done here by Stephen Malkmus and the Million Dollar Bashers (consisting of, among others, Steve Shelley, Thurston Moore, and Tony Garnier from Dylan’s touring band), is mesmerizing in the film when it’s coming out of Cate Blanchett’s Dylan. But without the visual, it’s diminished, though Malkmus still captures the song’s murderous essence.
In the spirit of charity, because it’s a pretty imaginative set, let’s dispense with the stinkers. Jack Jones and Sufjan Stevens confirm everything Sasha Frere-Jones said in the New Yorker a few weeks back about the unbearable whiteness of much indie rock. But you wonder whether that’s such a bad thing when you listen to the horror that is Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons) trilling his way through “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and, as a musician friend said, ripping off Nina Simone with every note he sings. (If they ever do a Joan Baez I’m Not There, Antony is a cinch to fill the reverse-gender Blanchett slot.) Karen O’s “Highway 61 Revisited” is joky and crass and superior to the grotesquerie and horror of the song in a way that Dylan’s version is not.
The best work here comes from Jim James & Calexico, who deliver a mournful “Goin’ to Acapulco”; from Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who makes “Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues” sound as if one of Dylan’s cracked characters were singing it; from Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová with a lovely, rustic-sounding “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”; and from Yo La Tengo, who nail “Fourth Time Around” and rave up the joint on “I Wanna Be Your Lover.”
There are two tracks, however, that tower above the others. John Doe covers “Pressing On,” a song from Dylan’s gospel period, adding further proof that that sequence of his career needs to be re-examined. Doe gives a stately, soulful grandeur to the song; it’s the sound of a man longing for salvation and as confident he’ll find it as Buddy Holly was that he’d find true love. And Marcus Carl Franklin (the young actor who plays Woody in Haynes’s film, Dylan as a black 11-year-old free spirit riding the rails), accompanied by Joe Henry on acoustic guitar, does such an unaffected, deeply felt reading of “When the Ship Comes In” that it makes the rest of the contributions seem a bit suspect. Utterly unburdened by any reverence for Dylan, any need of measuring up to or bettering the original, Franklin digs right into the song, singing so truly that it almost might be singing him. It’s a miniature version of the freedom and reinvention that’s at the heart of the movie.