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Friday, Jan. 6, 2006
Knockin' on Dylan's door
"You're invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal."
Bob Dylan penned that classic line, but it doesn't really apply to him. Dylan -- poet, singer, songwriter, the "voice of a generation" -- has spent much of his career trying to avoid the limelight, putting his persona in the public eye while keeping the real Bobby Zimmerman for himself. A certain cryptic distance was something he cultivated, and it has largely served his art well.
These days, the facade has started to crack ever so slightly, with the publication of Dylan's autobiographical "Chronicles: Volume One," in 2005 and the release of the Martin Scorsese directed documentary, "No Direction Home."
Although Dylan's "Chronicles" is revealing, it's also -- naturally -- guarded, cloaking as much as it reveals. Scorsese's doc, while working with Dylan's cooperation and approval, offers a broader, richer perspective. Aside from recent straight-to-camera interviews with Dylan himself, there are plenty of other voices: Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, Al Kooper, Dave Van Ronk, Pete Seeger and many more.
"No Direction Home" starts at a critical moment in the singer's career: his 1966 tour of Britain where his first electric sets were greeted by baying mobs of outraged folkies. The film jumps back from there, tracing Dylan's career from his roots as a teen in Minnesota (stealing Woody Guthrie records from friends), his move to New York City and rise in the Greenwich Village coffee-shop folk scene, all the way up to the moment that public and media pressure drove him to the brink. His troubled 1966 tour would be capped by a motorcycle accident in '67 that nearly killed him.
Spreading his material over nearly four hours, Scorsese takes a leisurely pace, and does a very good job of using archival footage to put Dylan's music and stardom within the context of the times. This is important, because, for a lot of people, Dylan represented something far more than just another pop singer with a good set of tunes. (And Greil Marcus' book "Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes" covers that far better than is possible here.) Both the civil rights movement and the peace movement would claim him for their own, and Dylan's eventual refusal to conform to any agenda except his own becomes one of the film's major themes. "They were trying to make me an insider to some kind of trip they were on," comments Dylan, concluding, "I don't think so."
Fans of the singer will find plenty to chew on here. Scorsese has unearthed some electric footage of Dylan solo and acoustic at The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, at his infamous show with the Mike Butterfield Blues Band at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, and most of all, on his '66 tour of Britain with The Hawks (later to become The Band, whose farewell concert was documented in Scorsese's "The Last Waltz"). It would go like this: Dylan would give an absolutely convulsive performance of some now-classic song like "Like a Rolling Stone" -- singing as though the world would end if his voice stopped -- and how does the crowd react? Boos. The camera interviews teens on their way out. "Rubbish" spits one. "He's a fake neurotic! Fake! Hypocrite!" The epithets are delivered with real anger, one that's born of a sense of betrayal on some existential level.
It's in this aspect that "No Direction Home" truly excels. What, exactly, is the relationship between fan and performer? Does the performer owe anything to the public? Are fans' expectations to be acknowledged or ignored? The artist earns a place on the stage through the support of fans -- do they get his soul in the bargain?
Because Dylan played songs like "Only a Pawn in the Game" or "Blowing in the Wind," is it any wonder that the civil rights movement expected his continued support? Because he rose through the folk movement, which prized acoustic simplicity and clear songs, could he really expect to move into electric blasts and obtuse wordplay with no resistance?
"I've never been that kind of performer that wants to be one of them, like one of the crowd," Dylan says at one point. "I don't want to endear myself that way." And sure enough, the film portrays Dylan as a singer who, at a certain point, decided to move in such a way as to resist all definition. Call him cold and distant (several interviewees seem to think as much), or call him true to his vision -- the evidence supports both views.
There's great, amusing footage of '65-'66 press conferences with the straight-laced media asking an increasingly bewildered Dylan absolutely inane questions. "How many people who labor in the same musical vineyard in which you toil . . . are protest singers?" asks one reporter, to which Dylan replies, completely poker-faced, "About 136." "You mean about 136, or do you mean exactly 136?" comes the followup.
Relentlessly barraged with such foolishness, the sage-like singer eventually loses his cool. "Do you care about what you sing?" he is asked, and watching his outraged reaction, it's nice to see that, despite his elusiveness, there's one thing that Dylan can be totally clear about.