We think we know, by now, what we're getting with these unauthorized music documentary DVDs: interviews with a variety of second and third-tier onlookers, scored to soundalike music, complimented with public domain footage, suspiciously lacking any input from the artist themselves, or any of the actual music in question. Bob Dylan is a particularly hot topic of this sub-sub-genre, the logic presumably being that his followers are so fanatical that they'll pick up anything with his name on it; a Dylan tribute musician/"filmmaker" named Joel Gilbert has put out several barely watchable examinations of his hero, sometimes even repackaging the same subpar material.
The point is, it's a bit of a shell game out there, which is why Bob Dylan 1990-2006: The Never Ending Narrative is such a nice surprise. It comes to us via Chrome Dreams, an outfit specializing in these releases; they've also issued some markedly sturdy U2 releases. Their strategy for standing out from the shady crowd is simple; their films are often made in Britain as news programs, thereby invoking "fair use" copyright rules that permit occasional song and video snippets, and they choose to seek out music writers and commentators rather than hangers-on. The results, make no mistake, are not great documentary filmmaking. But they are far better than what we've come to expect from releases of this type.
The special, which carries an entirely different title than the box (on screen, it is called "Bob Dylan Under Review 1990-2008"), begins in the glow following the release of one of Dylan's countless "comeback" records, 1989's Oh Mercy, and his almost immediate fall from favor with its poorly received follow-up, Under the Red Sky. After that album's critical lashing, his live shows deteriorated, and Dylan ended up in a bit of a rudderless state--and experiencing something of a writer's block, with two albums left on his Columbia contract. But he revitalized both his personal feelings towards the music business and his songwriting troubles with a pair of roots records (1992's Good as I Been to You and 1993's World Gone Wrong), recorded in his home studio, on which he performed old folk and blues numbers with a stripped-down sound. After that "key moment" or artistic reinvigoration, he did a well-received appearance on MTV Unplugged and turned out a series of marvelous, well-received albums--all the while continuing the back-breaking concert schedule that he began in 1990, which was soon dubbed "The Never-Ending Tour."
All of the highlights are covered: the back-to-back artistic smashes of Time Out of Mind, "Love and Theft," and Modern Times (the program was apparently produced before the release of his 2008 record, Together Through Life); his 2001 Oscar win; the publication of his acclaimed autobiography Chronicles Volume 1; the release of the Scorsese-helmed documentary No Direction Home, which constituted--along with the book--a new, somewhat "open book" phase of Dylan's life.
Thankfully, song snippets, television performances, and music videos are included to illustrate the tale. Mark Howard, engineer for Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind, is also interviewed, and provides a lengthy and detailed account of the sound Dylan was looking for on the latter record, and how it was achieved. But the story is mostly told through the words of several American and British music writers, including Nigel Williamson, Andrew Mueller, Patrick Humpries, and Johnny Rogan. Dylan biographer (and author of the great book Bootleg) Clinton Heylin adds his two cents (his opinions about what constitutes Dylan's good and bad work over the period are certainly, um, interesting); so does the great Bob Christgau, who provides a persuasive argument for why Modern Times may be Dylan's best work of the era.
The film amounts to a dialogue between them, a conversation in which the conclusions aren't always in agreement, but the theories and opinions are certainly worth hearing. In terms of running time, that's the bulk of what the film is--and that's a good thing, since so many of them are so clear, articulate, and thoughtful. The view of events presented is occasionally off the mark; several interviewees, as well as the narrator, call Dylan's performance of "Masters of War" at the 1991 Grammys an "embarrassment" and an "insult" to the audience, but there's nothing in the clip to support that thesis, and no less a Dylan expert than Greil Marcus calls that performance "one of the greatest of Dylan's career." In a film that makes room for Heylin's contention that the maligned vanity project Masked and Anonymous was a finer work than Time Out of Mind, it would have seemed at least worth mentioning that this opinion of the '91 show was not necessarily the consensus.
The filmmakers also make a few rather embarrassing factual blunders: contrary to the narration, Dylan did not direct Masked and Anonymous; that was Borat director Larry Charles, whose name is seen in the on-screen credit for the film's clips, as well as on the displayed poster. Similarly, Scorsese is mentioned as producer of No Direction Home (he was one of many), but not director. Some of the B-roll is also unfortunate; the cheesy shots of a hand on a control panel and bouncing meters whenever Dylan goes back to the studio are pretty silly, as are the beach-at-sunset visuals created to accompany Dylan's song "Not Dark Yet"; those look like the video accompaniment to a karaoke performance.
The full-frame image is pretty spotty. Most of the archival clips are in pretty rough shape--not apparently due to age, but to removal from origination. Suffice it to say we're clearly not looking at master tapes of these music videos and TV performances; the clips shown sport the heavy compression of a blow-up from YouTube or a similar web-based source. The new interviews, though a touch noisy around the edges, are well-saturated and fairly clean.
The 2.0 stereo surround mix is adequate--nothing more, nothing less. Interview audio is mostly clean and audible, though you may have to crank the volume a bit in a couple of spots. The music clips, meanwhile, are fairly robust.
The only real bonus of note is an audio feature, "The Love and Theft Press Conference- Rome 2001" (33:57). It captures Dylan in a round-robin interview with eleven European journalists in summer of 2001, after they took a listen to the new record. It's a good interview, with moments of insight and humor, though it is a bit of a strain to hear (and understand) the questions.
Also included are text-only Contributor Biographies of those interviewed in the special, as well as "Beyond DVD," an ad page for distributor Chrome Dreams's ten (!) additional Dylan DVDs.
Dylan fans are an impassioned lot, and the variety of second-guessing and contradictions among the experts in Bob Dylan 1990-2006: The Never Ending Narrative shouldn't come as a surprise. But they all offer an interesting perspective on this exciting and memorable period in the artist's career. Non-fans presumably won't give it a second glance, but in spite of its minor issues, this is a worthwhile spin for aficionados.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.