|Bob Dylan - No Direction Home|
|Written by Dan Macintosh|
|Tuesday, 20 September 2005|
“Bob Dylan: No Direction Home” is not going to give you a new and previously unseen viewpoint into this pivotal artist’s life. So if you’re simply dying to know who Dylan’s either spurned or slept with over the years, you’d better move along and point your mental browser elsewhere. But if you have even the slightest interest in the multiple societal factors that have aligned themselves with this unique artist’s Big Bang evolution, as well as those fortunate folks who have befriended him along the way, “No Direction Home” is a fascinating, detailed look back.
Right off the bat, it should be stated that director Martin Scorsese was absolutely the right man for this job. He may be best known for his shoot ‘em up Mafia dramas, such as “Goodfellas,” but he also directed the acclaimed historical music documentary “The Last Waltz” way back when, which captured the dearly departed Band’s swan song. Not coincidently, by the way, The Band was also Bob Dylan’s backing group for a good while, and it is featured significantly in this new film. Even when Scorsese isn’t directing specifically music-related films, his movie soundtrack songs always play important roles in his pictures. His usage of Derek & The Dominos’ “Layla” in “Casino,” for instance, comes immediately to mind because of its perfect placement in a scene from that Las Vegas-centered film. In fact, his empathetic relationship with musicians even helped convinced the usually camera-shy The Clash to appear in the movie “The King of Comedy.”
This DVD release required a full two-disc set, primarily because of the great detail Scorsese put into making it. For instance, instead of just rifling through and naming the various artists who inspired Dylan’s budding musical career, this film visually mixes in breathtaking clips of special folks like Hank Williams, Webb Pierce and Odetta doing their thing. Before, after and during each clip, Dylan explains how each of these artists initially captured his attention. By seeing and hearing them on the screen, it’s easier to comprehend why they grabbed the open-minded Dylan’s devotion.
One other factor that makes “No Direction Home” essential viewing for even the most casual Dylan fan is how intelligent he comes off during his many on-camera scenes. Anybody who has been turned off by some of Dylan’s more recent TV appearances -- especially the time he performed an incomprehensible version of “Masters of War” on a Grammy broadcast -- needs to see the Dylan who is at his best here. In contrast to his singing vocals, Dylan’s voice never whines or mumbles during his talking points on film. Instead, he speaks clearly and intelligently while thoughtfully recalling some of the major signposts along his storied career.
Dylan grew up in Hibbing, MN, we’re told here, and while this wasn’t the kind of place that would likely breed major cultural figures, it was still no doubt the sort of locale that might force a restless soul to venture off for someplace better. In Dylan’s case, that “someplace better” was New York City. Dylan describes Hibbing as an unbearably cold and dull region. It was so chilly, in fact, that Dylan believed its weather helped keep the crime rate down. He humorously comments that it was just too cold to commit crime. Instead, this place’s hard existence revolved around just surviving its harsh elements. Survivor minds, not criminal minds, prevailed.
In New York City, Dylan found a few likeminded artists. Shortly after arriving, he visited Woody Guthrie in the hospital. This was also where he began to master his performance skills inside Greenwich Village’s small concert venues. With its burgeoning folk scene, thriving jazz contingent and strong literary presence, Dylan found a community that might well – at least partially -- understand his ambitious musical goals.
After first becoming fascinated by traditional country and early rock and roll, Dylan next delved into learning how to play and sing folk songs. As Dylan explains here, Woody Guthrie’s words seemed to somehow speak directly to him, and never seemed old or irrelevant. This film’s interviews with friends who knew him back in Hibbing reveal what a quick study Dylan truly was. In a matter of months, they tell us, Dylan was already an accomplished folk performer.
Nevertheless, this same folk community that gave Dylan his music business start would not and could not contain him for long. As Joan Baez explains here, the progressive political community had similar troubles in keeping Dylan as their own. Dylan may have written and sung protest songs, and even attended a few protests, but he clearly had no intention of becoming and remaining primarily a protest singer. To this day, Baez explains, protesters still ask her if Dylan will be joining her at her various current protest appearances. But she knows well that he’s long since moved beyond the whole musical protest movement, and we shouldn’t expect him to ever come back to it. Sadly, Baez had hoped that she and Dylan could have continued performing together at such events, because she had bright hopes about the great effect such appearances might have. But Dylan had a much more ambitious artistic agenda in mind, one that would move him far away from mere folk music and into an indescribable category all his own.
This movie includes plenty of Dylan performance clips. For instance, there is some amazing footage of Dylan performing with The Band back when he first went electric. It may be hard to believe this now, but there was once a time when plugging in was akin to selling out – at least according to the entrenched folk community at the time. To add an exclamation point to this historical period’s skewed attitudes, there are some hilarious interview segments with attendees leaving one of Dylan’s British concerts during that time. Many of these unhappy fans accuse Dylan of becoming a shallow pop star with his noisy new “pop” band. But had they taken the time to actually listen to what he was recording with The Band, they would have realized what groundbreaking songs these efforts truly were. Then again, hindsight is always 20/20. Nevertheless, Dylan wasn’t creating straightforward songs about romantic and social issues; instead, he was alluding to personal and political situations in complex and poetic lyrical couplets in ways that had never been attempted by songsmiths before.
The sound of this DVD set should be taken with a grain of salt, because many of these clips were probably never intended to be shown in home theatre situations in the first place. Nevertheless, being that Scorsese is obviously a big music fan, the various clips of Dylan and other artists come off well here. Most importantly of all, however, are the moments when Dylan performs with The Band. During these incidences, it’s essential that the viewer hear the contrasting crowd reactions – both positive and negative – and this package has captured these pivotal concert segments perfectly.
This documentary only covers about the first half of the ‘60s, so it only scratches the surface of Dylan’s career. Then again, even a fully comprehensive view of Dylan’s life would still hardly begin to explain what Dylan’s all about: he’s just too complicated to be explained simply. Nonetheless, this DVD provides plenty of evidence of Dylan’s undeniable genius, and you’ll never regret taking the time watch it.