Thursday, February 12, 2009

No Direction Home

Now this is more like it. I greatly enjoyed D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back, but I could see in that film an obviously edited version of Bob Dylan, an arrogant little weasel that could either be torn down or further deified. But Martin Scorsese's extensive foray into Dylan's life and career (up until 1966, at least) uses mountains of archival footage and indeed Pennebaker's own material to provide much needed context to the aloof, pretentious Dylan we got with Don't Look Back. However, it appropriately never presents a definitive image of the most mysterious man in music.

Opening with a barrage of old clips and interviews from various periods in Dylan's 60s evolution, No Direction Home plays like the carefully researched documentaries of Ken Burns as processed through Scorsese's visual excitement. We officially start, of course, with Dylan's childhood, though this section remains firmly enshrouded in the fog of Dylan's mythology. An aged Bob speaks in voice-overs from an interview taken shortly before Scorsese came aboard the project, and for him life started in high school. His parents, his childhood friends, and any nostalgia get left to the wayside; Dylan subtly impresses upon us that he was born in a town that served only to inspire kids to leave, and his parents must have been too "normal" to even factor into his consideration.

Instead, he goes straight to the moment when he first decided to play music. Scorsese and his team managed to dig up a recording of one of his performances at a talent show, and I was surprised to learn that he started out as a rocker, tearing up the stage to the point that the principal came and closed the curtain. Dylan remembers the principal, of course, the first man to stand in his way. He also remembers two women he dated, but only because of their strange names. Even as a teenager, if you weren't different or if you weren't in his way, you didn't rate a blip on Dylan's radar.

Dylan describes himself in this period as a "musical expeditionary," a term he uses to justify filching dozens of records from the home of a friend who had the best collection of folk in the state. The man in question recalls how Dylan was so interesting then that he could never really be mad at the kid even though he was lifting ultra-rare recordings. Whatever the reason, the world probably owes this man a huge debt, because without him Dylan might never have heard Woody Guthrie's recordings, and had he not he would have never decided to go to New York to meet him. "I heard [Guthrie] had some kind of ailment," Dylan recalls, "so I thought it'd be a nice gesture to go visit him." He hitched his way to Greenwich Village, performed folk covers on the streets until a young starlet named Joan Baez invited him to sing with her, and within a year he was a star.

The Dylan of these early days comes off like joyous little musical sponge: whatever he heard, he memorized, and he tried to hear everything. If listening to his debut and The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan back-to-back was a shock, wait 'til you see it happen: suddenly thrust into the spotlight, Dylan finds himself a party to some of the most incredible developments of the 20th century. He's on hand at the Million Man March and stands mere feet away from Dr. King as he delivers his "I Have a Dream" Speech, and even gets to play his protest songs to the crowd. Young Robert Zimmerman has to grow up fast as the folk community essentially places all of their hopes on him: when he stumbled into Greenwich Village out of the Midwest (and already with a healthy load of made-up life stories), the community found the next Guthrie. Here was the Dust Bowl come to Greenwich Village: you didn't even need to leave home to see it.

The problem with all this sudden fame is that Dylan had absolutely no idea what to do with it. He was just a guy who wanted to play music, and all of a sudden people expected the grand speeches befitting social activists. But judging from interview footage, both old and current, the last thing Bob excelled at was speechifying.

All of this led to the most recognizable image of Dylan: the black-clad self-serious poet, never seen without a cigarette in hand, as if to add a physical haze around him to complement the fogginess of his personal history. This is the Dylan who, hyperbolic as it may seem, changed the world, the beatnik who hid behind dark sunglasses in order to mask his own insecurities. If the fans thought they were bewildered by this new development, they had nothing on the man himself. Over the course of the first 2 hours or so of the film, we've seen Dylan climb to the very top of the world, to scale Olympus and become a god. When Dylan cast himself out of heaven in a sort of protest of the protest movement, he expected his fans to follow their god, and he could never really understand why going electric had the effect it did.

Maybe it's because Dylan never really interacted with his audience. "I never wanted to be 'one of them'," he says, referring to that notion of the artist "becoming one" with the crowd. Identifying with an audience meant locking your music down to appeal to them for as long as possible, and Dylan could never figure out what he wanted to be long enough to care about appealing to a demographic.

The entire last stretch of the films deals with the controversy over this radical shift in tone. Fans boo his backing band; "I don't understand how they can buy up the tickets so fast," Bob wonders. Why do his shows sell out so quickly if the people hate this new direction? Not all fans were so close-minded, of course. At a clip of his '66 performances near the start of the film, a reporter asks for the opinions of the teens streaming out of a gig in England. One kid says he liked it, and another loses it: "I came to see Bob Dylan, not a pop group!" The first kid replies chirpily, "Not a lot of pop groups like that!" Thank God somebody got it.

Then there's the press. Don't Look Back portrayed Dylan's dealings with the press as, well, childish and spiteful, but Scorsese surrounds these scenes with context, showing just how thoroughly uninformed the reporters who pestered the artist were. One even cops to never having heard a single Bob Dylan song. Can you imagine a critic discussing a movie he hadn't seen, or a reporter wrote an article about a news event he knew nothing about? He'd get fired in a New York minute, but because this is rock 'n roll, and because it allowed them to print a sort of controversy regarding a falling star. The Beatles covered up their disgust with wit, but Dylan flat out fought them; you could argue (and I'm torn) that it was all an Andy Kaufman-like manipulation of people to craft a sort of anti-comedy only funny to him and those who got it, but really Dylan was just pissed.

Scorsese's documentary ends after 3-1/2 hours with some title cards mentioning Dylan's motorcycle accident and how he eventually recovered and continued to record (in case you weren't sure), but as much as I wanted to see the rest of Dylan's life explored by the filmmaker, I agree with the stopping point. Scorsese wanted to peer into the life of an enigma without ruining the mystery, and he succeeded wildly. He does not waste time by interviewing "experts" from music magazines who would speak in redundant platitudes about the importance of Dylan's albums; no, Scorsese digs up interviews with the people who really knew him, and because they knew him they never try to explain him. They report all the stuff Dylan told them and delightfully say that it's all a load of nonsense, but they still offer insights into the man and his work.

No Direction Home is not the best documentary ever made about music -- nor is it even Scorsese's own best, not with The Last Waltz knocking about -- but as a document on the life of a musician, I've never seen a superior film; as a portrait of an artist, it ranks second only to Terry Zwigoff's Crumb. Scorsese infuses the still photos and archival footage with such passion and understanding of what make Dylan interesting that he never retreads nor ruins the mystery for people; he does almost as much to cement Dylan's status as a genius and a revolutionary in the pop world as the actual music. I can safely say it's the only time in my life I've watched a 3-1/2 hour documentary and wanted to restart the thing and watch it again the second it ended.

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