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Inside Bob Dylan's Jesus Years: Busy Being Born Again
My heart sank from the opening frames of Inside Bob Dylan's Jesus Years: Busy Being Born... Again! Against a fairly amateurish graphics display, we have music from a sound-alike band and a roll call of on-lookers and hangers-on, adding up to our old friend, the unauthorized music documentary DVD. Mr. Dylan has had his fair share of these thrown-together affairs (not as many as the Beatles, mind you, but several); investigation of earlier unauthorized Dylan docs led me to a rather startling conclusion about this one, which I'll get to presently.
The disc at hand is an exhaustive (123 minutes) examination of the period from 1978 to 1981 where Dylan shook off his Jewish heritage and became a born-again, Evangelical Christian. The change was surely an important and genuine one for him, but it was embraced by few fans (now or then) as it led to three Gospel-tinged albums (Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love) of arguable quality and a series of live performances that were more revival meetings than rock shows.
Bob Dylan's Jesus Years is written and directed by Joel Gilbert, the lead singer of the Dylan tribute band that provides the film's music; he is also the on-camera interviewer (and I mean "on camera" interviewer-- boy, does this guy love to cut away to himself, show himself arriving for the interviews, etc.) Gilbert's fascination with his subject is obvious, but it comes with the cost of objectivity. To put a fine point on it, the film is way too long and goes off on far too many tangents with too many interview subjects that we don't care a whit about (people watching the disc might be interested in Dylan's spiritual journey, but probably less interested in that of his back-up singer). The film has the aesthetic qualities of a home movie (what with Gilbert's front-and-center presence and such amateurish touches as visible cameras and tripods during interviews); unfortunately, it also has the editorial sense of one.
And speaking of editing... my oh my, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more irritatingly edited project that his one. It is put together like the first project of a high school kid trying out his new iMovie set-up; every cut has a cheesy video transition (usually with a sound effect!), interview subjects bounce around the screen in smaller boxes, and so on. Most annoying is the use of painfully literal cutaways-- for example, when legendary producer Jerry Wexler says he would have been willing to make a record of Dylan "doing the Yellow Pages," we're treated to a quick close-up of, yep, the Yellow Pages. When Wexler says he wanted to try bringing some "different ingredients" into the sessions, we're treated to a shot of salt and other spices on a pantry shelf. I am not making this up.
Ultimately, Bob Dylan's Jesus Years shares the same problem as the other Beatles and Dylan unauthorized bio-discs; you can get all the sound-alike recordings you want, and interview all of the peripheral characters you want, but there's seldom anything enlightening or comprehensive that can be said in a music documentary that has no interviews with the subject and uses none of their music. Dylan himself is barely seen until the one-hour mark, when we glimpse some silent performance footage; a vintage TV interview pops up shortly thereafter, and that's about it. Buried somewhere deep in Gilbert's film, there are some insights, and a few of the interviewees (particularly the late, great Wexler) have some interesting things to say, but it's all lost in the film's detachment, too-clever cutting, and excessive length.
But wait... there's more. As I was preparing this review, I did a search in the DVD Talk database for reviews of other unauthorized Dylan docs. As I read Phil Bacharach's 2006 review of Bob Dylan 1975-1981 Rolling Thunder and the Gospel Years (also directed by Gilbert), many of his criticisms sounded strangely familiar. So I got my hands on the previous disc. And here's what Gilbert did: He took the final two hours of that four-hour film and repackaged that half of that film as an entirely new one. The bonus featurettes are, also, direct lifts off the 2006 disc. This isn't merely a case of a double-dip; there is nothing on the packaging or anywhere on this disc's extensive website indicating that this is recycled material. It is the ultimate in sneering unauthorized exploitation-- a rip-off of a rip-off.
The aforementioned "home movie" quality is especially present in the non-anamorphic widescreen image. The new interviews were clearly shot with pro-sumer mini-DV cameras, with the expected "video look"-- some grain, soft edges, even some focus problems. It's not a terrible-looking picture, but it's not a terribly good one either.
The 2.0 mix is problematic. The interviews (and, let's face it, that's most of what we have here) are mostly clear and audible. But (not surprisingly) Gilbert puts the music of his tribute band underneath most of the interviews, which gets distracting. Worse, the editor blasts the music very briefly between interviews, then turns it down way too quickly. Can we chip in and buy them a mixer with a nice fader knob? All in all, it makes for a mighty messy mix.
As mentioned above, the bulk of the extras are scene from the earlier, longer disc that this one was extracted from. First we have "1978 World Tour" (14:33) , and since it came from the same source film, it has the same problems as the main film (in this one, a former band mate says Dylan was "mercurial", and the screen goes to a full-screen graphic of, literally, a dictionary definition of that word). Next is "Dylan and 'Hurricane' Carter Together In Prison 1976" (05:54) , covering Dylan and the Rolling Thunder Revue's visit to Clinton State Prison to play for the subject of his hit song "Hurricane". Some of the vintage TV footage here is interesting, but, again, it can be seen elsewhere (favorite bad cutaway of this section: When Ramblin' Jack Elliot talks about the changing moods of the prison audience, it is illustrated by full-screen happy and sad face graphics).
The disc also includes a Photo Gallery 1978-1981 (5:00), mostly made up of pictures of Dylan onstage. Finally, we have extractable Soundrack MP3s, just in case you're a big fan of Gilbert's tribute band, Highway 61 Revisited.
Let me make this as clear as possible: if you are such a tremendous Dylan fan that you have to see Inside Bob Dylan's Jesus Years: Busy Being Born... Again!, then so be it (but take it from someone who owns every Dylan album and dozens of bootlegs: I absolutely couldn't maintain an interest in it). But if you go to Amazon, you will find a two-year old disc for the exact same price, with all of the same stuff and almost two hours of additional worthless information. If you're gonna waste your money, at least waste it well. As far as this disc goes, fans and non-fans alike should Skip It.
Jason lives in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU.