on 4 August 2015
I've quite liked some of Dylan's music for over thirty years now, although I'd never say I was a diehard fan. I watched this because I've long thought there was something I must be missing. What struck me first was that, although it's called "No Direction Home: Bob Dylan", it's really only about Dylan's career up to his 1966 bike crash.
I can honestly say now that I understand what all the fuss is about. Yes, okay, I will go out and buy (more of) his albums. However, I didn't take away from this what a lot of other reviewers have.
The film focusses on Dylan's "break" with his folk music past when he introduced electric guitars and drums on his 1965 "Like a Rolling Stone". A lot of his fans were outraged by this, and you get a real flavour of the vitriol that was directed at him at the time. It all seems a bit bizarre now, but some of it actually made me laugh out loud. A group of working-class Geordies summing up their feelings after a concert. “Bob Dylan’s a bastard”, one of them says. Yes, that blunt. Then when Dylan gets into his getaway car after the concert, clearly a bit fazed by all the booing (who wouldn’t be?). His first question to his entourage is, “Why did they even buy tickets?” Why, indeed.
However, I'm not sure the film is unambiguously for Dylan and against his detractors. I think Scorsese himself doesn't really know which side was right. After watching No Direction Home, I know I don't. To me, that's a major strength, by the way. It would have been quite easy to make a Dylan = good, purist folksters = bad documentary, but this isn't that. It's more nuanced.
For a start, it ends precisely when Dylan gives up his "pure" folk sound, as if to imply that nothing he did would ever be that interesting again. Then, of course, there's the genuine philosophical question about all artistic endeavour, which Scorsese doesn't dodge: should the artist's personal preferences, desires and ambitions be his ultimate guide, or does he or she have some "higher" calling? Is there something essentially moral about the ground-breaking artistic career, beyond the dictum, "To thine own self be true"? The question is redoubled when the artist in question produces a significant body of work with an apparently moral flavour.
It seems like it should be an easy question to answer. Of course the artist's personal preferences, desires and ambitions should be his guide! He's the one with the talent, after all. But in that case, there's no such thing as an artist "selling out" - whatever he or she does, from selling motor insurance (Iggy Pop) to advertising butter (John Lydon) to going to work for Goldman Sachs (thankfully, no one yet) is equally valid. What, if anything, constitutes “betrayal” in this context? If, in 1965, Dylan had decided to spend the rest of his life making jingles for Lehman Brothers would that have been betrayal? Watching No Direction Home, I got the impression that artists like Joan Baez and Pete Seeger would have no difficulty defining "sell out"/ “betrayal” in non-musical terms. Dylan, I'm not so sure.
The real problem here, and the reason I’m only giving four stars, is that No Direction Home doesn’t distinguish sufficiently between Dylan’s “political” and his “musical” break. In Loose Change: Three Women of the Sixties (Collins 1977), for example, a first-had account of that period by a former Rolling Stone journalist, Sara Davidson remembers a group of New Leftists in 1964 “arguing about whether Bobby Dylan had betrayed them with this new album, ‘Another Side of Bob Dylan’. In ‘My Back Pages’, was he denouncing all his protest songs?” (p84-85). But ‘My Back Pages’ is an entirely acoustic song, as is the whole of that album. The important point here is that there is no mention of it in No Direction Home, and it was probably quite a widespread discussion at the time. The “political break” is treated as entirely one with the musical break.
But I don’t think it can be. You can’t continually write songs like Masters of War, Oxford Town and Only a Pawn in Their Game without raising certain (legitimate) non-musical expectations in your fans. And Dylan’s an intelligent man. He can’t have been completely oblivious to that.
I’m going to speculate now. Perhaps the problem was that he was in love with a woman and a folk movement that was becoming more and more explicitly leftist. Dylan was never that, and I guess it wasn’t what he wanted to become. Artistically, he couldn’t stand still because countercultural politics was becoming increasingly polarised. He therefore felt he had to make a choice – the folk movement and the woman he loved plus simplistic politics or … something else. For integrity’s sake, he chose the latter. And, since the non-explicitly-affiliated type of song he had written in the past was now no longer possible – in the changed climate of the mid-sixties it increasingly looked like sitting on the fence - it was a choice in favour of pure music. A different type of music. And I think this evoked in him a deep understandable bitterness. Hence why he slighted Baez on their UK tour, his break with her, and the bitterness of “Like a Rolling Stone” (described as “like a vomit” in the film), and the deep contempt, voiced by Dylan more than once in this film, for journalists who bring non-musical considerations to the table.
This is conjecture of course, but it fits the facts. The alternative – the one the film suggests, and Dylan seems to go along with – makes him too much of an aesthetic egoist. He simply saw himself as a musician whose output had no more moral import than that of Elvis or BB King or Muddy waters. That beggars belief. If I’m right, it wasn’t that Dylan turned his back on folk so much as that he felt that he and it were destined to go separate ways, and he had to pre-empt the split before he was left high and dry.
Great film. Could perhaps have probed a little deeper.