No Direction Home: Bob Dylan Review
When Bob Dylan and three members of the Paul Butterfield Band plugged in their instruments at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1965, popular music changed forever and Dylan became both international rock star and hate-figure for a thousand readers of ‘Sing Out’ magazine. It’s one of those culturally defining moments which become mythical and it’s the origins and results of this moment which give shape to Martin Scorsese’s new documentary No Direction Home Bob Dylan. Considering that it’s also one of the most documented and discussed moments in pop music history, you might wonder whether there’s anything left to say about it. I certainly did and I approached this documentary with a certain scepticism. Needless to say, any scepticism is completely unjustified because this is a riveting, beautifully assembled document about one of the most significant artists of the 20th Century.
The two-part film, running 209 minutes in total, covers Dylan’s career between his growing up in Hibbing, Minnesota and his tour of the UK in 1966, culminating in outraged fan Keith Butler’s famous cry of ‘Judas’ at the Manchester Free Trade Hall on May 17th. The first half examines how he got from Minnesota to New York, his musical influences (ranging from Hank Williams to the Clancy Brothers) and his discovery of Woody Guthrie which encouraged him to find his own voice in “Song to Woody”. We hear some great stories; how Dylan so outraged his high school at a talent contest that the Principal pulled the curtain on him; how he stole rare records from Tony Glover as it was the only way he could hear them; how he lied his way into the Folklore Center in New York with a ludicrous manufactured life story. This is riveting stuff. Scorsese and his team have got together some fantastic interview footage, chasing up virtually everyone still with us who was around during Dylan’s early career.
Better still, and its not hard to believe (whether its true or not) that only someone of Scorsese’s reputation could have achieved this, we get Bob Dylan talking about himself, a wily and ironic man of 64 looking back on his younger self with what looks like amazing honesty until you realise that everything he says in designed to appear open and frank while really sucking you back in to the mystery. It’s up to individual viewers to deconstruct his comments and decide what is true and what is friendly dissimulation. When he says of his Columbia recording contract “I didn’t really believe it myself”, it may sound like disarming honesty but I don’t believe a word of it. It was Dylan’s basic certainty about himself and his talent that made him a star in the folk scene and subsequently gave him the balls to defy the people who got him where he was because he really did know better than they did what he should do with his talent. There was surely no disbelief, at least not from Mr Zimmerman. It may suit him to pretend there was but that’s all part of his, rather charming, smokescreen. Later he says that he didn’t know that ‘Blowing in the Wind’ had “any kind of anthemic quality or anything”. You’re not telling me that someone who had devoured 400 classic folk and blues records didn’t know an anthem when he came up with one. Call him one thing and he’ll deny it – there’s a great moment from a radio interview in the early 1960s when he refuses to accept that he writes topical songs, shortly before he came out with ‘Masters of War’ and ‘With God On Our Side’. But please don’t regard this as criticism. I don’t want Dylan demythologised any more than I want Van Morrison to go around after a show signing autographs and posing for photos. It’s the myth we love and the thing to which we keep returning and I think Dylan knows this as much as anyone.
The structure of the documentary reveals Scorsese’s guiding hand. In some respects it is a straight chronology taking us from 1941 to 1966. But Scorsese, aware of the impact of that 1966 footage, keeps coming back to it to demonstrate that made Dylan, along with his undeniable brilliance as a songwriter and performer, was his sheer bloody-mindedness. When he sings ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, he sings it at the audience, the line ‘How does it feel?’ becoming an aggressive come-on. This is repeated, undisguised, when he addresses ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ to the people shouting “Go home” from the audience. The look of slight boredom coming over his face as he trudges through an acoustic ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ changes to one of glee when he begins improvising on his harmonica, realising that this is really pissing off certain sections of the audience. Then the expression changes once again to sheer delight when he’s with his band, The Hawks, and taking about half of the audience with him while outraging the rest. Add to this some absolutely inspired use of other footage – items from private collections, stills from photo shoots, clips from old movies, archive news footage, performances from other singers ranging from Odetta to Joan Baez – and you have one of the most compelling films of the year. Scorsese also supplies us the social context within which Dylan became famous. There’s a lengthy section about the history of Greenwich Village which is full of Ginsberg spouting his extraordinary free verse and Liam Clancy drinking and singing snatches of songs. Scorsese sometimes makes direct connections between American history and Dylan’s music and isn’t afraid of the obvious – ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’ is accompanied by clips of the Kennedys and weapons tests.
The second half of the documentary begins to focus more on how Dylan, becoming a worldwide phenomenon, came across to audiences and his contemporaries, making an inexorable trek towards the 1966 tour of the UK. Dylan seems to have deliberately moved away from the political movements which he became involved in, notably the civil rights movement. This seems to have had more to do with an unwillingness to be categorised than any lack of sympathy with the movements themselves – apart from his flirtations with evangelical Christianity, Dylan’s politics seems to have been consistently left of centre. The irony is that the exact things which made Dylan an ideal ‘protest’ singer and icon of the folk movement – his ornery nature, his unique take on the surrounding world, his wit and insight – are the things which forced him to move on from that into something new and different. When you listen to ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, that first drumbeat is like a gunshot with the barrel aimed at the exact people who cheered him at the 1963 and 1964 Newport Folk Festivals.
This second half also includes a good number of other voices on the subject of Dylan’s move from folk to rock. Al Kooper, for example, tells his famous story about how he got to play on ‘Like A Rolling Stone’. Joan Baez comes across very well indeed – funny, wise and remarkably forgiving. She is particularly good value on the subject of how Dylan’s songs would combine personal and political, often being aimed at one particular group of people who had fucked him over. Scorsese includes some fantastic footage from a vast number of sources; the Steve Allen show (in which the host clearly has no idea who Dylan is); the 1963-65 Newport Folk Festivals gleaned from Murray Lerner’s rare documentary Festival; and outtakes from D.A.Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back and the little seen Eat the Document. There are undoubted omissions. Drugs, for example, are never mentioned. Dylan’s relationships with a series of remarkable women are covered more by implication than explicit information. Indeed, the whole private life is barely covered at all, although this at least makes for a documentary blessedly devoid of gossip and scandal. His personality doesn’t come out of the film in a particularly glowing light – Joan Baez talks about his ‘darkness’ and how hard it could be to reach him – but he does come across as a complex and fascinating human being who was sometimes, in Baez’s words, “a pain in the ass!” His sense of humour, thankfully, is often in evidence, along with the verbal and musical playfulness which you see in extracts like the promo video for ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ (and which has continued to appear in his later work). Along with this, of course, comes his cruelty – depicted here in the scenes from Don’t Look Back where he baits journalists or treats Baez like shit. At times, he simply seems a little baffled - "Why do they boo?" he says after a particularly fractious live show in 1966, "How did they manage to buy up all the tickets so quickly?" - which reminds you that when all this was going on he was still only 25 years old.
I can’t think of many ways in which this film could be improved upon. I wish it were a mini-series rather than a two-part film because I would love to see Scorsese tackle the period between 1967 and 1991, a time which is much less familiar and just as fascinating. It would be wonderful to see the evolution of ‘Blood on the Tracks’ between the New York recording sessions and the finished product. How about Dylan talking about his 1978 conversion to Christianity or why he took all those great songs off ‘Infidels’ and replaced them with ones which were generally inferior. I imagine this is never likely to emerge but I’m allowed to dream. I’d also have liked to see more about some of the songs that got away – the beautiful ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’ or the legendary ‘She’s Your Lover Now’.
Martin Scorsese is the ideal person to direct this kind of documentary. In fact, he’s fast becoming one of the best documentary filmmakers around. In his brilliant series on American and Italian cinema he showed himself to be the ideal film history teacher. Now, with The Last Waltz, his documentary on the Blues, Feel Like Going Home and this study of Dylan, he’s broadened his range into popular music. He is able to use his considerable grasp of technique to sustain a momentum that keeps the audience just as gripped as they would be in a thriller. Even the fortuitous shifts from black and white into colour flare out with meaning. No Direction Home is one of his very finest achievements, an invaluable document about one of the most exciting periods of the 20th Century. Everyone should see it, whether or not they’re interested in Bob Dylan. I guarantee that a good number of those who aren’t interested will come out of the documentary as budding Dylanologists. It really is that good.
The DVD transfer of No Direction Home is excellent. Considering the amount of ‘found’ footage included in the film, some of it in pretty ropey physical condition, it’s remarkable that the film has such a consistently impressive visual appearance. Some of the scenes look beautiful, particularly much of the 1966 concert footage which is in far better condition than I had expected. Sometimes, there’s an awful lot of grain and damage but this is inevitable. The fact that there is as little as there is should come as a recommendation in itself.
There are two soundtracks. The 5.1 surround track is very involving with the music filling in the surround channels. The 2.0 track is also fine with music and dialogue remaining eminently clear throughout. Needless to say, some of the song performances and other archive clips have less impressive sound than others but that’s par for the course with this kind of DVD
The extra features are made up of seven bonus ‘live’ songs from a variety of sources. We get ‘Blowing In The Wind’ from a TV show in 1963 which has Dylan looking a bit like a wax model; ‘Girl From the North Country’ from Canadian TV, on a log-cabin set and sounding spare and beautiful; ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ from a 1964 TV appearance; ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ from Newport 1964 which looks pristine and sounds gorgeous; ‘Love Minus Zero/No Limit’ from London 1965, an outtake from Don’t Look Back unless I’m mistaken in which Dylan looks very relaxed off-stage; ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ from Newcastle 1966 with Dylan coming across as quite aggressive and stringing the song out to nearly 9 minutes; and ‘One Too Many Mornings’ from Liverpool 1966 in a fantastic electrical version. All of these are well worth seeing.
There are also four performances by 'guests'. Liam Clancy sings 'Girl of the North Country' after rambling on engagingly for a bit. Maria Muldaur sings an outtake from the 'Infidels' album, 'Lord Protect My Child'. Mavis Staples storms through 'A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall' and Joan Baez sings her hit version of 'Love Is Just A Four Letter Word'.
Finally, we get a very bizarre unused promo clip for the marvellous ‘Positively 4th Street’, one of Dylan’s most biliously nasty songs, and some all-too brief footage of him developing a beautiful song called ‘I Can’t Leave Her Behind’ in a hotel room in Glasgow.
The disc allows you to access the documentary via particular songs or through the usual scene selection.
Even if you watch No Direction Home on its TV showing, its worth getting on DVD simply because you’ll probably want to watch it again and again and you also get the bonus live performances. It’s wonderfully rich social history about a man who is just interesting as hell directed by a master filmmaker. What more could you want?