Who is Bob Dylan? The ultimate Woody Guthrie tribute act? Folk troubadour in his own right? The quintessential rock-and-roll rebel? Traitor? Fraud? Master? Genius? Everyone has had an opinion, but only one man knows the truth, and he has zealously guarded it for more than forty years. Last year, Dylan released Chronicles, Vol. 1, a horse's mouth memoir with some of the only insight into the man's thought-process not couched in free-associative lyrics.
Dylan has continued to dodge discussion of the critical years of his popular rise, but the musician recently entrusted to master filmmaker Martin Scorsese an audio-visual addendum to Dylan's new-millennial bout of self-mythology. Scorsese previously directed The Last Waltz, a crack concert film of The Band's swan song that featured a Dylan set. No Direction Home: Bob Dylan recaptures much of that film's energy in its selection of found footage, collection of interview subjects (33 in all, two of whom are no longer with us), and perfection of editing techniques.
Fashioned into two parts totalling three and a half hours, No Direction Home: Bob Dylan gives narrative shape to Dylan's early years, from his upbringing in Hibbing, Minnesota to his polarizing 1966 summer tour, represented by a Newcastle, England performance of "Like a Rolling Stone" ("How does it feel/To be on your own/With no direction home/Like a complete unknown/Like a rolling stone?").
The Newcastle performance (followed soon thereafter by an eight-year hibernation from touring) becomes a thematic refrain for the film. Dylan soldiers on through jeers and cheers, and Scorsese ponders where Dylan is at home: on stage, in Hibbing, or in transit: away from fans, toward Woody Guthrie, or plainly onward as a "musical expeditionary" (a self-description Dylan uses more than once in exclusive new interview footage). Briefly, Scorsese arrests time, then flashes back and forward at will, claiming the wide-ranging freedom of Dylan's lyrics.
The early-going hops through young Dylan's musical and social influences: Hank Williams, Johnnie Ray, the Grand Ole Opry, Muddy Waters, John Jacob Niles, Odetta, the Cold War, Jack Kerouac, and of course Guthrie. Dylan chuckles at the juxtaposition of popular '50s music (singling out "How Much is That Doggie in the Window?") to cold-war paranoia, with its Red and Bomb scares.
No Direction Home provides access to those who knew him when, as Robert Allen Zimmerman, and Dylan himself reveals that, knowing he couldn't get into West Point, he underachieved in formal academics, eventually enrolling in University of Minnesota but failing to ever go to class. He was too busy becoming, immersing himself in country, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and folk, even if he had to beg, borrow, and steal records to do so. Soon, Dylan was infiltrating the exploding New York City beat scene and waiting—but not for long—to be discovered.
Expect no surprising confessions from Dylan. As usual, his interviews aren't as illuminating as those of his friends, colleagues, and critics, who prove more willing to discuss his character. The interviewees include Dylan's former creative and romantic partner Joan Baez, Izzy Young, Pete Seeger, Liam Clancy, John Cohen, Mavis Staples, Maria Muldaur, Mickey Jones, improbably named music exec Artie Mogull, and the late Allen Ginsberg and Dave Van Ronk. On at least one specific, if familiar, subject (Dylan's purposefully riotous electric performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival), the chorus of interviewees provides a collage of perceptions.
Scorsese's skillful structure (with editing by David Tedeschi) hops along the social touchstones of the turbulent '60s—the civil rights years, JFK's assassination, Vietnam—even as Dylan maintains he was never political (in archival interviews about his shift to rock, Dylan cheekily insists that all of his songs are protest songs). That Dylan was not so much political as a vaguely liberal "leaner" arguably takes the piss out of his early work, though it's certainly nothing less than humanist. Here, as ever, Dylan won't play the game of signifying the importance of his songs: they are what they are.
Rather, the picture that emerges captures and clarifies the apparent contradictions: Dylan's evasion of a false pop culture and pursuit of a genuine zeitgeist (or the "American collective unconscious"), his hungry ambition and his queasy intolerance for its consequences. As Dylan himself puts it, "The ideal performances of the songs would then come on stages throughout the world. Very few could be found on any of my records." Scorsese's film proves this point with rare and intensely vital live work, increasingly stoked by vocally vitriolic crowd reactions (post-game interviews confirm an audience split, but the band can't help but notice packed houses wherever they go).
Scorsese also takes full advantage (always ascribing credit where it's due) of the contemporaneous films of D.A. Pennabaker (Don't Look Back and the barely released Eat the Document) and Murray Lerner (Festival): footage and outtakes from these films complement other rare clips and stills from the Dylan archives. Fans will be positively enthralled at the well-preserved nuggets, and neophytes will understand the fuss over the musician and the man, seen here at many of his best moments and a pinch of his worst.
A hideous run of press conferences from 1965 explain better than Dylan could (though he tries) his perfectly sane refusal to discuss his work and attitudes. But Dylan's continued coyness and endless fascination leave Scorsese with gaps all the same: each subject broached by the filmmaker opens another box of questions that go unanswered. It's a testament to the man (and his talented chronicler) that this 208-minute film focusing mostly on a seven-year period in Dylan's life feels inadequately short. Scorsese could have consumed the 600-minute running time of The Beatles Anthology thoroughly to plumb this brief period of Dylan's enduring career.
Those expecting a definitive film, then, should remember that the film is an authorized biography promoting the attitude of its subject (Baez gently scolds the ex-lover, but unequivocally celebrates the artist). Scorsese's just-the-facts presentation of Dylan's controversial move to plugged-in rock admirably allows the audience to make up its own mind; for the artist's part, as seen in the archival footage, he was going to do his thing and damn the torpedos. Who can disagree? No Direction Home: Bob Dylan is, finally, another gift from Dylan, one that ironically proves he doesn't owe us anything more than his music. The expedition may have doubled back over once-travelled ground, but it continues unabated.
The two-disc set of No Direction Home: Bob Dylan places Part 1 (1:53) on Disc One, along with a menu that allows the viewer to jump to the musical performances (and previews for Mad Hot Ballroom, The John Wayne Collection, and MacGyver). Disc Two serves up Part 2 (1:35), along with the musical-performance menu and a host of invaluable bonus features.
Foremost are eight complete, uninterrupted performances by Dylan: "Blowin' in the Wind" (live TV: 3/63), "Girl of the North Country" (TV: 2/64), "Man of Constant Sorrow" (live TV: 3/64), "Mr. Tambourine Man" (Newport Folk Festival: 7/26/64), "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" (London: 5/65), "I Can't Leave Her Behind" (work-in-progress in Glasgow hotel room: 5/19/66), "Like a Rolling Stone" (Newcastle: 5/21/66), and "One Too Many Mornings" (Liverpool: 5/1/66).
Disc 2 also includes an unused, black-and-white, 1965 Columbia promotional spot for "Positively 4th Street" (3:59) and four informal "Guest Performances" (totalling 10:21) with a "Play All" option: "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" (Mavis Staples), "Girl Of The North County" (Liam Clancy), "Love Is Just A Four Letter Word" (Joan Baez), and "Lord, Protect My Child" (Maria Muldaur).
The transfer and overall production of the set are flawless. All those with interests in popular music should add this excellent documentary to their collections; for Dylan fanatics, it's a no-brainer.
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