Aficionados of Bob Dylan are packing his sold-out concerts in Britain and Ireland on his current tour. But the really serious aficionados have also been searching the internet for the screenplay of Dylan's latest film and clues to his on-screen alter ego, Jack Fate. Since Love and Theft was released, in 2001, a newly galvanised Dylan has found time between his 100 or so annual gigs to co-write and star in his first movie venture for 16 years. Directed by Larry Charles, Masked and Anonymous is a baroque exploration of his myth and the myths of the counter-culture that rose up around him, by turns evasive and labyrinthine, and his most interesting filmic foray since the 1960s.
Though he is uncredited as writer, the screenplay - already posted onto the internet - has his hands all over it. The actor Jessica Lange gave the secret away at the film's Sundance premiere, when she was asked what drew so many Hollywood stars to the project. For the likes of John Goodman, Jeff Bridges, Penelope Cruz, Val Kilmer and Mickey Rourke it was "the chance to speak Bob Dylan's words".
Jack Fate is a washed-up folk singer, sprung from jail to play a benefit concert in a war-torn America -a kind of hall of mirrors vision of the Land of Home Security. The president is dying, and Fate is the old man's prodigal son. The reasons for their estrangement are slowly revealed as the action moves towards a benefit that never actually happens, the birth of a new regime, and a darkly humorous denouement in which a pushy journalist is impaled with the splintered neck of Blind Lemon Jefferson's guitar.
Add to this rehearsal scenes, confessions, threats, drunken seductions, and a succession of weird exits and entrances, and you have a richly Dylanesque movie peopled with characters who could easily step out from his songs. Dylan as Fate, however, reveals little of the private face behind the public mask. He simply fixes it a little more firmly. He is a star of the silent screen, barely speaking, but infecting everything with his spooky presence.
Filmed in the spring of 2002, and heavily re-edited after its initial, poorly-received screening at Sundance, it is a flawed but fascinating success and, taken on its own terms, as intense and illuminated as Dylan's best songs. Dylan the writer does not stay in one place long enough to conjure up a rounded narrative or character, which makes the movie compelling in its detail rather than its story. There are many vivid tableaux, from the roving Los Angeles street scenes of the opening, to Val Kilmer's animal wrangler and a closing monologue that is pure Dylan. None of it may make obvious sense, but the movie is brave enough not to deal in straight answers. Neither does Dylan.
Interestingly, its filmic influences are from Dylan's youth, the Sixties New Wave and William Burroughs's post-apocalyptic Interzone. We see an office sign for his infamous Dr Benway in a run-down office lobby, and the forces at work in Dylan's dystopian world are full of the Burroughsian themes of language and perception, media, power, and control.
Seriously playful without being seriously revealing, it is not the only film investigating Dylan's mythology. A forthcoming Martin Scorsese documentary for the BBC will cover his early career and rise to fame, concluding with the motorbike crash in 1966 - the most potent years of his iconography - and Dylan has agreed to talk about them at length. It will be his first interview on film in nearly 20 years. Due for release in 2005, it may perhaps accompany the long-delayed publication of Chronicles, a book of autobiographical writings based around his songs, and promising Dylan's own take on the stories that abound about him. Top that with yet another movie project, an officially sanctioned Todd Haynes biopic that features various actors - including women - in the lead role, and it seems that in his seventh decade Dylan is finally ready to bring his legend to account.
The Dylan of today, in his Western stage gear of a certain vintage and with his Oscar for Things Have Changed, cuts a very different figure from the lost, painfully dogged iconoclast of 15 years ago. Climbing on to the Never Ending Tour bus in the late Eighties, he took a musical wrecking ball to his past. I remember him at Hammersmith in 1991, when you could almost hear the overturning of idols as he lay the boot into song after song. It was a terrible performance, and somehow riveting because of it. I didn't know why I was there, he would later say of those car-crash gigs, and he didn't know why we were there, either.
In the early Nineties, he released a couple of home-recorded folk albums, raw and honest and filled with the songs that took him back to the era before his own fame, and its consequences. Other than that, he stayed away from recording studios and stayed on the road, shaking off the audience he wanted to shake off - his own generation, more or less, baby-boomers looking for a tribute-band version of his past. By the time the songs for Time Out of Mind started brewing up in the back rooms and sound stages of the Never Ending Tour, Dylan had freed his creativity from their expectations, and his live work was reaching peaks that he still touches on the nights when it all goes right.
Time Out of Mind marked the miraculous return of an artist at the far end of the tracks. With its moral starkness, nail-on-the-head humour and moments of vivid candour, Dylan the tired rock icon suddenly became a figure as old as Joshua. "I've been around the world boys," he sang, with his ancient ruin of a voice and thousand-mile stare, a folkloric figure playing to the Western Lands. No other artist had retrieved himself so successfully from the weight of his past.
Love and Theft followed in 2001, an album filled with the zest for juxtaposition and creative confusion of his finest work. Dylan takes his version of the cut-up approach to his raw material - the American songbook, literature and folklore, cryptic confessionals and vivid landscapes - to forge a crossroads where the ghosts of Harry Smith and William Burroughs meet. Mixing corny jokes and a foreboding sense of a world overflowing upon itself, Love and Theft expanded on the mature psychological vistas opened up by its predecessor, confirming beyond doubt the power of Dylan's late maturity. "The way we look at the world is the way we really are," one of Jack Fate's few monologues begins. "See it from a fair garden and everything looks cheerful. Climb to a higher plateau and you'll see plunder and murder."
Whatever level Dylan is at, it seems that as a mature artist he has proved himself against his own legacy, and as Jack Fate he stands beyond its reach. But what world is it that he's looking at, standing at the side of his stage over the electric piano he's taken to playing since the spring, occasionally given to wandering out among his musicians with his cryptic directions, the living custodian of his own songbook?
As their marvellous live performances on Masked and Anonymous attest, his current band ranks with his best. On stage, his nightly experiments with phrasing and time continue to teeter between order, genius and chaos. Part ritual and part sound laboratory, Dylan's back-to-basics shows still cut to the core, matching the musical peaks of his youth with a glorious late maturity. He has taken his chances, and his audience does the same. There are a half dozen British dates over the next 10 days, and hopefully at one or two of them he and his band will be great again.
'Masked and Anonymous' is due for UK release in selected cinemas in the new year. 'The Bob Dylan Reissue Project' is out on Sony LegacyReuse content