Five musicians are handed a box of unfinished lyrics and asked to turn them into songs.
These aren’t just any old lyrics, these are lyrics by Bob Dylan, a man who famously knows a thing or two about stringing words together. And these lyrics come from the fabled “Basement Tapes” era, written during the 1967 “Summer of Love.” And there are dozens of songs.
Additionally, under the direction of Grammy- and Oscar-winning producer T Bone Burnett, the artists — Elvis Costello, Rhiannon Giddens of Carolina Chocolate Drops, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, and Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons — are given two weeks to create an album together as a makeshift band at the famed Capitol Records recording studio in Los Angeles.
This is the setting for “Lost Songs: the Basement Tapes Continued,” a fascinating new documentary airing on Showtime Friday at 9 p.m. (The songs themselves are collected on the recently released album “Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes.”)
James sums it up succinctly at the start of the one hour, 45 minute film: “ ‘Here’s some lyrics for your songs. Bob Dylan wrote them. No big deal.’ That’s about as awesome as it gets.”
But once the “BOB DYLAN” shock and awe settles a bit — and uninitiated viewers are given a history lesson — the film becomes the ultimate game of Words With Friends as the quintet sets about trying to capture some of the freewheeling essence of that original basement in a state-of-the-art studio.
The game morphs into a puzzle as five songwriters, all multi-instrumentalists too, start sifting through, stitching together, and taking ownership of Dylan’s words to transform them into fully formed songs. Songs that Dylan himself will be hearing: He signed off on the project, and his voice is heard throughout the film in interview segments.
The fly-on-the-wall nature of the film, directed by Sam Jones, should appeal not only to fans of Dylan and the artists involved, but also to anyone interested in the process of songwriting. The stops, starts, happy accidents, frustrations, insecurities, and epiphanies are all here as the singer-songwriters arrive with different levels of experience, confidence, and prolificacy.
Giddens, perhaps the least well-known of the quintet, is an incredibly gifted musician. But although she has written songs, she considers herself a novice and initially struggles to express herself in a way that translates for the others. Mumford, the most nervous of the group due to his intermittent songwriting habits — and the only one who shows up without multiple song sketches in hand — seems to feel the pressure most. As collaborative and open-minded as veteran Costello, happy-to-be-there Goldsmith, and good-natured experimentalist James are, they also did the most preparation and thus have the most concrete ideas and confidence.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the film is when we hear how multiple songwriters arrived at wildly disparate places in terms of phrasing, melody, tempo, and instrumentation when using the same set of lyrics. (Something as simple as singing St. Louis vs. “St. Louie” in one tune offers a window into their different approaches.) And the way that each artist so thoroughly colors the words with an individual sensibility shines a light on the deeply personal nature of creation.
Whether Dylan or other listeners end up enjoying the finished compositions, “Lost” is an intriguing peek into the process.