on 21 October 2006
Martin Scorsese's film No Direction Home, which I watched last night, provided an absorbing three and a half hours of insight into Bob Dylan's early life and his emergence into prominence and controversy in the mid sixties. I mention the duration of the movie because I can rarely sit and watch for so long without my attention wandering. Not in this film. Before remarking on the content of the film, it is worth considering Scorsese's direction. I recommend this film to anyone interested in watching or in making documentary film. The way in which archival material, concert footage and interview segments are integrated and paced is masterly. The film really tells a story and creates an atmosphere: I felt as though I was there. Scorsese's experience in making feature films has enriched his direction of this film. Although comparisons are silly, it may be his best film. It sent me back to The Last Waltz for comparison of his method.
The film's most valuable asset is Dylan's own recounting of his past, and the most striking point about it is how much interview time in Dylan's early years was wasted in asking often trite questions of this most intuitive mind. He rarely answered them, and often could only express his irritation of the questioner. Scorsese's film of the contemporary Dylan rarely presents the questions, content to record what he has to say. Hibbing, Minnesota is stripped bare. Even Dylan's evasiveness, when dealing with his more questionable behaviour to friends and colleagues, is revealing. There is a conflict between Scorsese's intention to make a coherent narrative and Dylan's lifelong habit of crossing borders and categories, throwing dust on his trail and refusing to be pigeonholed that adds an interesting tension to the viewing.
The main thrust of Scorsese's film is the impact of Dylan's crossover to electric instrumental accompaniment. Listeners then had become divided into self perceived groups, the folk 'purist', social conscience type and the mindless consumers of pop pap who just enjoyed the music, and Dylan outraged everyone by moving between these groups freely. His motives were neither pure nor particularly self aware. From the perspective of our own times the differences between these types of music seem less extreme: both were commercial entertainment; listening to a protest song was often a substitute for more committed action. Yet at the time the difference was important to those who were there. From the conflict that ensured, the boos and the cries of traitor, there would emerge something new in pop culture, the pop music artist, and Scorsese doesn't let us forget it. One disadvantage to this emphasis is that it focuses on the same period and phenomenon as Pennebaker's Don't Look Back, which is even quoted in Scorsese's film. The Pennebaker film (a masterpiece) has been available on DVD for some time, and most watchers of No Direction Home would be familiar with it (note the similar inspiration between the two titles).
The film reveals Dylan's background, and then moves on to an overview of the music he grew up listening to, from Hank Williams to Muddy Waters, fascinating to those interested in developments in popular music. The society of Dylan's youth is sketched in vividly: Cold War, Greenwich Village, the folk music scene, the civil rights movement, the birth of folk-rock. The controversy over Dylan's move to electric instruments in the mid 60s is shown through concert footage. We see the Dylan who found, used and then dropped Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez and many others. One comment, that Dylan was like a sponge, reminded me of a similar comment about George Gershwin, who absorbed, or 'stole' elements from all the popular cultures of his time. But transformed them. This was the Dylan who became, unexpectedly, a pop star, who poured out a stream of literate, introspective pop lyrics which made pop culture 'respectable' to the intellectuals and had a transforming effect on the way popular music was presented by other artists. In a way Dylan could be said to have re-invented pop music in this period.
So, everyone has his Dylan. In the 60s Dylan was for some The Genius; for others he was The Poet; for others again he was The Traitor. These are all projections of our own that tell us what we are looking for. No wonder Dylan dodged like crazy. Today if you become a star you deal with it by making it a persona, or you self destruct by taking it all seriously. Dylan survived because he had many personas. This film is Scorsese's Dylan. We'll never know Dylan's Dylan.
Scorsese's film covers the period 1941 to 1968, when Dylan suffered injuries in a motor cycle accident when he was about 26 years old. Therefore the film does not deal with a lot of important things about Dylan: his marriage and family; his influence on popular music, especially on the Beatles; the literary value of his song lyrics and his stature as probably the greatest of popular song writers; his use, even quite late in his career, of traditional melodies (which is common folk practice); the creation of country rock; the disintegration and self healing recorded on Blood on the Tracks; his various religious affiliations; and his non musical activities such as paintings and novels. If anyone reading this knows Martin Scorsese would they ask if a second film is going to be made covering this material? Probably the elusive Dylan would consider it too defining and completing a study to be made in his lifetime, but you can only ask.