Friday, September 17, 2010

No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005)

UK/USA/Japan, 208 minutes, documentary
Director: Martin Scorsese
Photography: Mustapha Barat, Maryse Alberti, Oliver Bokelberg, Anghel Decca, Ken Druckerman, Ellen Kuras, James J. Miller, James Reed, Lisa Rinzler, Michael Spiller

There is practically no end of mysteries when it comes to Bob Dylan, not least the matter of his appeal. Personally, I don't think any other figure, after James Brown, looms so imposingly significant in 20th century popular music, and yet I remain hard-put to articulate the reasons. But after 1997's Time Out of Mind, it simply became an article of faith, one easily renewed by constant and regular visits to the catalog, from the earliest classics of the '60s to his recent radio show on XM. Martin Scorsese's leisurely and wide-ranging documentary, a kind of generous prodigy even just for its ability to probe and get its hands on so much of Dylan's confusing early career, particularly the breakout, finds the way to raise the curtain on many of the mysteries, in the process making some of them more mysterious than ever. Focused on Dylan's origins in Hibbing, Minnesota, as Robert Zimmerman, and tracing the vicissitudes of his catapult to fame and unparalleled reign until a motorcycle accident put him out of commission in mid-1966, the documentary incorporates extensive interviews with many of the principles, most notably the man himself, who clearly retains much of his hostility to being interviewed, but here sucks it up and does his best. One result is that that element of Dylan's personality and life anyway is revealed once and for all as genuinely sincere. It's arguable that much of Dylan's early success stemmed from little more than the vivid imagination of someone trying to escape a dead-end small town life, manifested as often as not in a tendency to tell a lot of stretchers, in combination with something psychologists might label "poorly developed individuation"—he didn't, arguably perhaps even doesn't still, know who he is himself, at least not in relation to the rest of us. He is a man of action, albeit a peculiar kind of action. Once he managed to land a record contract with Columbia shortly after hitchhiking into New York City at the age of 19, that's when the miracles really started to occur. The first album was a dud, so he decided instead to write his own stuff rather than stick with the working plan to that point of unearthing and absorbing every last oddity of American folk music. Result: The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, one of the great albums of the era, which has lost little of its charm or power in the 50 years or so intervening. And make no mistake, the material sounds better than ever playing in and around the interviews here, and captured in live performances of the time. That's pretty much the way it goes. The rise to fame and adulation is vindicated right down the line, certainly for many fans, as each impossible peak is followed by another. By the time Al Kooper is relating the story of how he came to play organ on "Like a Rolling Stone," followed immediately by the snare hit that kicks the song off and then a good two-minute blast of it, just the way it sounded on the radio back in 1965, or better, it's goose bumps time right down the line. Meanwhile, the whole drama is fascinating to follow, the absurdly spiteful vilification he endured from his folk/protest fans when he started playing with a band, the endless harassment he attempted to cope with from the press, the famous with whom he consorted—Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, Joan Baez—and always, always writing songs and songs and songs. One of the most telling things about Dylan that occurs to me every time I look at this is that he has written so many of his songs, and so many of his best songs, on a typewriter. It was just pouring out of him. Joan Baez tells a great story here about stealing a song from him after she sat in a room with him while he worked it out, "Love Is a Four-Letter Word." Later, when Dylan hears her version of it on the radio in her company, he says (and here Baez goes into her terrific Dylan impression), "That's a really great song." She's gob-smacked. He's forgotten that he wrote it. "You wrote it, you dope," she says that she told him. Will this movie convert anyone who doesn't already appreciate Dylan for what he is? Maybe—just maybe. For fans, however, there's no question. It's absolutely essential.

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