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No Direction Home: Bob Dylan

Paramount // Unrated // September 20, 2005
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Bill Gibron | posted September 21, 2005 | E-mail the Author
Six years. It only took him six years to move from prophet to near pariah. Where once he was embraced as the voice of a generation, he would soon be marked as a musical heretic. During his ascent, he was a protest song sage who channeled the classicism of rural roots music into a poetic call to arms. He was the dust bowl reborn in the heart of Greenwich Village, the distant radio twang of the Grand Old Opry channeled into the basics of country commonality. Before he fell into the fire of his own increasing fame, he redefined the role of the singer, the songwriter, the musician and the muse all in one amazing burst of overflowing creative juices. Yet he made one incalculable mistake. He believed that his fans would follow him wherever his artistic designs desired. So when Bob Dylan released the electrified rave-up "Like a Rolling Stone" in 1965, his flock were confused, but not yet corrupted.

But the minute he took the stage at the Newport Folk Festival, and plugged in his amplifiers to recreate the sound of his soon to be released album Highway 61, Revisited the entire consciousness cosmos came crashing down. The shift was seismic, the first step in the inevitable death of the 60s as a whole. When Dylan brought out the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and started jamming full out on his new batch of "rock" songs, the momentum and the movement built up around what was arguably the most important figure in music simply washed away. In its place was bewilderment and betrayal, a sense that the savior himself had crawled down from the cross and decided to let the sad lot of sinners who created him fend for themselves. The scattering of boos and catcalls that met his impromptu power-up would haunt him for the rest of his touring schedule - and in some ways, the rest of his career.

It was the end of one Bob Dylan, just like other Dylans had died off over the years. After a motorcycle accident in 1966, the troubadour would not take the stage again for eight years. This final misfortune forms the finale of Martin Scorsese's masterpiece of a music documentary, No Direction Home: Bob Dylan. Covering his formative phase, the cinematic master proves in four hours and two DVDs that, when it comes to the subject of music and its influence on people and social subconscious, no one understands its filmic finesse better than America's greatest living director - or its greatest living songwriter.

The DVD:
Bob Zimmerman was a nobody, a solitary cipher in a one-horse town controlled by the local strip mine. It wasn't home; it was a location to place your body until the age of majority allowed for flight. As soon as he graduated high school (where he showed some initial interest in music) young Zimmerman headed to the big city - Minneapolis to be exact - and the University of Minnesota. Not that he attended classes. He just had to escape. A newfound appreciation for American folk music lead him to Woody Guthrie, and when he learned that the scene, and his brand new hero, were both off on the East Coast, Dylan up and relocated again. Ever the blank slate, he absorbed everything he saw. He drank in the direction he received from an ailing Guthrie, mimicked the musicianship he saw in and around the Village. Like the radio stations and songs he used to memorize as a teen, everything was absorbed by his internal aesthetic, and eventually, the need to express some or all of it was mandated.

Thus began the career of the newly christened Bob Dylan. In a strangely meteoric rise from open mic performer to voice of "his people", Dylan proved to be the cultural counterpoint for a musical scene mired in its own self-importance. That this enigmatic singer/songwriter changed the face of folk is questionable. After all, the foundation of the genre was so firmly established over centuries of struggle and strife that one man couldn't recreate it all by himself. No, like the Beatles with rock and roll, Dylan dissected his musical influences, filtered and reformed them until they spoke the language that he wanted to speak, made the points that he felt like making. When he grew tired, he changed. When he needed inspiration, he learned.

At each and every turn, he was embraced and emblazoned as a consciousness, or a calling, for the substantive struggles that would define the 60s. But when you hear him speak during Martin Scorsese's genius documentary dissertation No Direction Home, you realize that it was nothing the man really wanted. He was a channel, a shell filled by all the references and persuasions around him. It was these voices that motivated and moved people, drawing out their desire to make a difference. Bob Dylan was just the dynamic outlet for them.

If Paul McCartney was smart, he would get on the phone right now, ring up Scorsese, pay him any price he dictates, and open up the Apple/Beatles vault and let the filmmaker have at it. What this amazing, maverick moviemaker has done for Dylan's legacy is priceless. For those who lived through the very early 60s, the concept of what Bob Dylan meant, not just as a musician but as a force for sonic change was readily apparent. Even as late as the mid-70s, Dylan was a man with an entire monumental myth built up around him.

But when punk broke, it took bedraggled dinos like Dylan with it. Bands like The Sex Pistols and The Clash proved that politics didn't have to be prettied up in poetry and plaintive acoustic guitar chords to be potent. His increasingly strange demeanor began a backlash bigger than the one forged at Newport in '65. Soon, this once powerful voice of protest, this man who penned some of the most mesmerizing lyrics in the history of song, was a punchline to a stand-up's comedy routine. The strangled delivery, the atonal archness that was obvious in mid-80s Dylan was blatantly designed for a funny man's heyday. And the man didn't help matters much, going through a public "conversion" to Christianity as a born-again evangelical, and then shunning the spotlight for years at a time, only to turn up with half-hearted concerts and even less inspired albums.

But when he was God, he was the biggest one of all. Just like Oliver Stone did in the first 15 minutes of JFK, Scorsese restates the case for Dylan's place as a rock and roll deity. And by all that is holy does he makes a magnificent masterpiece of a presentation. In a year that has seen more amazing rock documentaries than perhaps ever before (Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, DiG!, End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones and Edgeplay: A Film About The Runaways, to name a few) No Direction Home may be the best yet. While it doesn't have the flamboyance of famous heavy metal rockers in unmitigated meltdown, or a battle between self-described geniuses for arrogant a-hole bragging rights, Scorsese simply lays out the facts about Dylan's distancing childhood, chameleon-like changes and artistic temperament and let's history hop on for the ride.

He does it without a great deal of visual pomp or circumstance. Granted, Scorsese's access to archival material is so amazing that, just when you think the director won't be able to show certain parts of the very early Dylan story, another amazing film clip plays out over the interviews. The filmmaker also employs the standard talking head approach to realize his main narrative thrust. Fans of the genre know that this can be deadly to a documentary. But just as he understands the inherent drama in crime, Scorsese knows the illuminating lure of music. It is such a mystery to us fans, such a seemingly magical thing that any information on how it is made or managed has the inherent ability to draw us in. With a subject as substantial as Dylan, it's not hard to get lost in the recollections and reflections of those who knew him, interacted with him, and learned from him.

What we learn is truly spellbinding. Dylan was the individual that an entire disaffected generation imprinted on. He was a meager, unassuming figure who took the stage, guitar in hand and harmonica on a weird wire holder, and simply spoke his mind. Originally, it wasn't his own thoughts that came out. He was a traditionalist, and found his message in the musings of others. But as time went by, Dylan felt the calling to create his own ideas. With a verbal skill born out of some inner angels (and a few devils) combined with the ever-changing social situation around him, Bob Dylan became the ultimate reciprocal repository for people's needs. What they desired they found in him, and what he required he got from their passion.

Scorsese is also careful to make the connections to the place and time of Dylan's rise. He gives the beats and the rebels their place in the mix, allowing the late Allen Ginsberg (an amazing poet and thinker) to lament how Dylan replaced his literary movement as the new notice board among intellectuals. But Ginsberg is clear to point out the naiveté and newness of what he was doing. In essence, he argues that Dylan was a beat musician, a man taking his wealth of worldly knowledge and experience and giving it a somber, strangled singing style spin. Listening to Mitch Miller, popular producer/arranger and A&R man for Columbia dismiss Dylan on one hand, and yet argue for his company's decision to sign him on the other is important. Miller was as old guard as you could get, and Columbia was the home to Percy Faith, Johnny Mathis and Doris Day. Yet something about Bob Dylan drew this moneymaking muzak machine into his aura.

Individuals unfamiliar with Dylan's music will instantly embrace his genius after watching No Direction Home. Like Tarantino today, no one has consistently understood the inner electricity of music the way Scorsese does. Whether he's employing it as part of his splatter rampage moviemaking, or actually presenting it live onscreen (as he did with 1978s The Last Waltz) Martin Scorsese makes the rolling thunder of rock, and gentle lilt of a folk ballad into a powerful, potent tonic for the troops. It is important to remember that, before he went electric, Dylan appeared onstage with his guitar and his songs...that's all. No elaborate staging. No well-choreographed back-up band. No attempt at the theatricality or the showmanship of today. And yet when viewed in the stark monochrome clips that Scorsese employs throughout, it is impeccably clear why Bob Dylan became an icon. He looks like one onstage, a shimmering black and white shape capturing and enunciating the light as he laments the plight of the people.

Of course, Dylan himself would disagree. Ever the deflating little sprite, the now elder statesman of understatement just doesn't see what the whole world saw in him. In his view, he was never a protest singer (though he contradicts some early comments to the contrary) and never tries to decipher what his songs are about (though some couplets - especially those in "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" and "The Times They Are A-Changing" - seem pretty obvious). In No Direction Home, we get the feeling that, removed from the maelstrom, taken out of the vital and volatile scene of the early 60s, Dylan is now back to his pre-superstardom blankness. He readily admits to being not much more than a nothing while a child, and the crafted collection of lies he used as an initial biography (living in New Mexico, as well as several other sections of the country) are nothing short of hilarious. As he proved to the purist crowd that summer night in 65, Dylan would always be a trickster. He would never be underestimated or predicted - at least, not when he didn't want to be.

Thanks to a glorious collection of live footage, a wealth of interviews and subjects (including an amazingly candid Joan Baez and an equally up front Pete Seeger, among many others) and Scorsese's unquestionable skill as a filmmaker, No Direction Home becomes more than just a documentary. It becomes a portal back in time, a chance to relive some of, if not the most, exciting years in the history of politics, personality and music. Wisely, Scorsese keeps events (the Kennedy assassination) and people (those four lovely lads from Liverpool) not mandatory to his mission in the background. This is Dylan's turn to shine, especially since the current popular culture is less clued in on his undeniable gifts than those of a certain Sir Macca (who, at the time this review is being written, is relentlessly pimping his latest, post-Beatles album).

If there is one single drawback to this entire cinematic celebration, it's that Scorsese stops at the '66 accident. Frankly, with a film this amazing, he could simply go on forever. We'd happily sit through another few hours if only to learn how the folkies finally embraced electricity themselves, how the man created his classic late period albums, and just what happened to him during those decades in a kind of cultural purgatory. Dylan's story was and remains an ever-evolving exploration of one man striving to find himself - and the voice that accompanies it. While a tired and dejected Dylan moans to an Italian reporter at the end of the film that all he wants is to go home, the truth is that Bob Dylan really has just one residence, and that is as the solitary force who first shifted the performance paradigm away from extroversion to introspection. Getting a chance to spend four hours reliving his rise to glory makes for one of the most satisfying and scintillating experiences of the year. What an amazing masterpiece of a movie.

The Video:
Presented on DVD by Paramount in a ready for television (PBS will be airing the documentary during the last week of September, 2005) 1.33:1 full frame image, No Direction Home has a flawless digital design. The incorporation of archival material into the new footage is pristine, and the combination of elements (television broadcasts, filmed clips, home movies) turns into a magnificent montage of multi-media mesmerism. The modern footage has the slightly softer look of an older generation in full reflection, but the black and white flights down memory lane are stunning. This is an amazing looking presentation, proof that when placed in the hands of an artist, any combination of factors can look timeless.

The Audio:
As impressive as the visual aspect of this DVD is, the sonic situation is even more breathtaking. The music made during the early 60s was a somber, solitary experience between artist and audience, with almost no boundaries in between. Preserved in a Dolby Digital Stereo 5.1 Surround mix, No Direction Home is sheer aural bliss. It is not because the conversations are upfront and clear (they are), or that additional ambient elements remains sharp and sonic (they do). No, it is Dylan and his amazing music that come shining through here, a chance to hear the iconoclast preach to his flock without the disturbing disruption of hiss, overmodulation or distortion. As well as being a major artistic triumph, No Direction Home is one of the best technical presentations currently available on the digital format.

The Extras:
Get ready for Dylan music en mass as the sole bonus features on this two-disc presentation consist of songs made famous by Dylan during his heyday. Culled from live appearances made between 1963 and 1965, we get seven unforgettable Dylan segments, including performances of "Blowin' in the Wind", "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Like a Rolling Stone". Each DVD allows you the option of going directly to the musical moments in the documentary itself, and there is even a chance to see an unused promotional spot for "Positively 4th Street" as well as Dylan working on the song "I Can't Leave Her Behind" circa '66. While a Scorsese commentary would have made this package complete (or perhaps a few snippets of the hours of interview material the director had to edit out), what we get here is still pure gold. More than anything else, it is Dylan's music that mattered most, and this is what this presentation delivers in delightful droves.

Final Thoughts:
Instantly taking its place as a classic of the genre - and possibly one of the greatest rock and roll documentaries ever helmed - No Direction Home proves once and for all what fans always understood, but what most outside Bob Dylan's sphere of influence were hard pressed to see. More than the chameleon he paints himself as, yet less of the singular social consciousness the folk scene forced him to be, the dynamic known as Dylan had far more facets than anyone wanted to acknowledge or allow. The reason he burned so brightly was because, in a collection of conformists and classicists, he followed his own layered muse and banged his own ornery drum.

During the film, a friend says a very telling thing about Dylan and his audience. As an artist and a spokesman, this special singer/songwriter made the people come to him, not the other way around. He didn't affect his voice for maximum marketability or write the kind of tunes that would climb to the top of the pop charts. Bob Dylan made the noise he wanted, and it was up to those interested to meet him on his terms. For the most part, they did. The one time they voiced their displeasure, he simply stood his ground and moved on, with or without them. And it was those who failed to hop on board as this new electrified train pulled out of the station that had the real 'no direction home'. They were left to wander. Bob Dylan simply followed his feelings. It is what made him matter. It was what made him myth. It was what made him a legend. And it is what makes this film one of the most amazing and satisfying ever.

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