Sunday, October 02, 2005

I thought there would be more discussion about last week’s Bob Dylan documentary on PBS….

but I was mistaken.

John Derbyshire had a typical piece – mainly about where he was when he first discovered Dylan. While a testament to the artist, it had little to do with Scorcese’s film. Bulldog at Ankle Biting Pundits, apparently not a Dylan fan, asked his readers to explain why Dylan was such a big deal. Sadly, the readers weren’t much help. In fact, few even came to his defense - and of those few, nobody praised Dylan’s singing ability. That’s a pity, since, by my seemingly singular estimation, he’s the best singer out there.

David Yaffe at Slate had an actual review, though he seemed to take exception that Dylan’s new documentary came “complete with a Starbucks tie-in, an Apple logo”. Such is life, Yaffe, such is life. He also faulted it for not mentioning drugs. Neither gripe warrants much attention. Dylan was an opportunist at 19 and he still is at 64. Like all rock stars. And drugs? Such an omission in No Direction Home is very minor, especially when you can just look at the young Dylan and tell the score. Yaffe seemed to notice this:

…to the bleary-eyed near rock 'n' roll suicide of '66. We witness him singing "I'm not weary" in a '66 performance of "Mr. Tambourine Man," but he looks weary as hell. Has any 25-year-old ever been so jaded?

Yaffe makes other good observations, but treats Dylan’s control over the project as he would some politician engaged in a cover up:

But before you get too excited about this crossroads meeting [Dylan/Scorcese], viewer, beware: This project was co-produced by Dylan's manager Jeff Rosen. Scorsese was brought in well after Rosen had already conducted the interviews and approved the material. What will all these assholes be saying about Dylan? In this "Martin Scorsese Picture," whatever the Dylan people want.

Mickey Kaus had the most thoughtful take on Dylan:

The excellent PBS Dylan documentary last night convinced me he was neither the voice of his generation nor all that influential--more of a sui generis artist. If he hadn't done what he did nobody else would have. Chuck Berry, on the other hand, was influential--he diverted a mighty river of popular music. But if Chuck Berry hadn't done what he did arguably somebody else would have, soon enough.

I thought No Direction Home was excellent as well, perhaps the best thing Scorcese has done since his Personal Journey through American movies. What impressed me most, though, was that it showed a consistency to his character – something that the litany of Dylan biographies have yet been able to do. Much credit for that should go to the new interviews with Dylan (from about 10 hours of material! Bootleg, please!). Granted, he doesn’t say much, specifically, yet generalities allow him to be more candid than otherwise possible. He was even downright talkative. The sum total of the other interviews contributed to this consistancy.

Scorcese constantly cuts forward to Dylan’s ’66 tour – seemingly to draw a stark contrast to his chronological counterpart in the narrative, but those contrasts are drawn ever closer in the narrative.


Dylan’s a young lad way up north in Hibbing, MN. Small town life interrupted by terrible freezes. According to Dylan: “It was so cold, you couldn't be bad." I remember the Minneapolis weatherman describing it as “pipe-busting batter-drenching” cold – so cold that it couldn’t snow. And so it was. Scorcese manages to show Hibbing as a small vibrant community. A place with a main street and parades – the circus and sideshow barkers. But those barkers weren’t the only links to the rest of the country. AM radio was another. There’s a nice sequence between young boy Dylan listening to the radio and a shot of the thin Minnesota night sky, receiving those remote signals – Hibbing was an outpost.

Dylan doesn’t seem to mind parting with his home, or his family. He’s remarkably cold when it comes to that stuff. By all accounts, he’s a cocksure young buck soaking up influences like a super-duper-kwicker-picker-upper. He describes himself as a “musical expeditionary”. He is.

He rolls into the village of freaks, and out freaks them all with his Huck Finn demeanor! No one ever thought to ask him about his okie accent. Meanwhile, he’s soaking. And singing. And soaking. He taps into the protest scene, makes the best protest songs they ever heard, and walks away.


Part two goes through the transition pretty well up through the Newport ’65 show. Although attention is paid to the Highway 61 sessions, there is no mention of the Blonde on Blonde sessions, which could have been a natural counterweight to the chaotic tour. The documentary breaks down and ends abruptly. Instead of the motorcycle accident as an ending (as forshadowed) we end during the ’66 tour and a few titles mentioning the accident. And curiously no mention of his wife! Yet part two is half an hour shorter. Dylan’s people could have reconsidered.

Nevertheless, this is fine documentary. The live performances are great and Scorcese ties all the material into a gripping story. It would be a real shame if No Direction Home isn’t followed up with two other installments covering the remainder of his career.

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