Film #44 of 2010 - No Direction Home: Bob Dylan
Directed by Martin Scorsese, No Direction Home is an exhaustive, 3 1/2 hour documentary about folk/rock icon Bob Dylan that examines not just the work of Dylan, but the explosive historical time period during which he first found success. Scorsese covers Dylan's (then Robert Zimmerman) childhood in Minnesota, but doesn't do much more than gloss over it, opting to first concentrate on when he became "Bob Dylan," (name inspired by poet Dylan Thomas) the young man who discovered the music of legends Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie, among others, and moved to New York to play their music on his acoustic guitar and his harmonica hung around his neck. While the focus is on Dylan, Scorsese also presents what is happening socially, politically and musically during this time, and in the early 1960's before the civil rights movement really exploded, folk music was alive with a rabid fan base, but the mainstream successes were velvet-voiced singers like Johnny Mathis. When Dylan breaks through with his own songs he is quickly hailed as "the voice of his generation" and though he wanted success all along, the labels thrust upon him, particularly political ones, were not what he was looking for. When his style evolved into the introduction of electric guitars, a full band and a fair amount of distortion, he was called a traitor by his purist folk audience while becoming a bona fide rock star with the ever-changing mainstream audience. Specifically focusing on Dylan's career until 1965 when he suffered a terrible motorcycle accident, No Direction Home brings the early 1960's to life through the artists and musicians who worked with Dylan and we hear about it from Dylan himself.
I'm a really big fan of documentaries, and even entertained the idea of becoming a documentary filmmaker when I first entered film school. I've been known to say that I would give a documentary about paint drying a chance because I am so interested in the genre, but whether I actually end up liking the film or its subject(s) is another matter entirely. Not knowing a lot about Bob Dylan other than the fact that he has almost become a caricature by this point, (everybody has a bad Dylan impression, myself included) I will fully admit that, although I knew Scorsese would churn out a well done film, I wasn't too thrilled about watching a really long piece about someone whose music I didn't really care for. I can honestly say that within the first few minutes of the film, all preconceptions were out the window and I was quite riveted.
Though it may sound strange, I think that some of the interest was in seeing Dylan himself being interviewed today, mainly because since I've been alive, he's been an iconic figure whose musical footage may be shown, but how often do you hear him talk? As it turns out, he is soft spoken, with a slight Midwestern twang to his voice; forthcoming and intelligent. He alternates between looking down, almost shyly, as he speaks, and gazing directly at the unseen interviewer next to the camera. Scorsese relies on footage and pictures to tell the majority of the story, however, and interviewing many of the people who were in those photos and films really bring the events to life. Folk musicians like Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Peter Yarrow are interviewed as well as impresarios and producers of the era like Mitch Miller and friends like author Allen Ginsberg.
Scorsese apparently had unprecedented access to footage and photos and it really shows in the quality of the materials. There are hundreds of black and white still photos of Dylan that are absolutely stunning, and footage of his performances, whether on The Steve Allen Show or the Newport Folk Festival is captivating. He is somewhat shy and uncomfortable until he sings, and then it almost becomes theater, with his face earnestly conveying the emotions of his lyrics. There is a lot of back stage footage of Dylan exhibiting a really dry wit, and then in the next scene he's giggling with band mates like a teenager. His cleverness and exasperation with reporters is apparent in several featured press conferences, including one in which a long winded reporter asks a rambling question that basically ended up being, "How many singers out there do protest songs?" Dylan shoots him a look and repeats, "How many singers do protest songs?" almost giving the reporter the chance to back out of the stupid question, but when the reporter nods, Dylan simply says, "136." which made me laugh really hard. There is also famous footage included, such as parts of D.A. Pennebaker's film, Don't Look Back, in particular the infamous "cue card" scene featuring the song Subterranean Homesick Blues, and Andy Warhol's 1965 "Screen Test" film.
Scorsese bookends the film with footage from concerts in England in 1965 when much of his fan base were so shocked and dismayed by his transition to electric from acoustic that they would boo and scream names at him, which never failed to amaze me, and apparently, Dylan himself, who would wonder why they paid for tickets to just scream epithets. My favorite part actually takes place at the end of the film. Dylan, who had recently shown obvious signs of burnout and exhaustion from having to deal with the success and everything thrust upon him, walks on to the stage as someone yells, "Judas!" Dylan turns to his band and you hear him say, "Play it fucking loud" and the band bursts into a really loud and rousing electric rendition of "Like a Rolling Stone." It was just a really great kiss off moment and perfectly placed at the end after the viewer has learned how complicated the previous five short years actually were.
No Direction Home, of course, is about music, and there is a lot of it, performed by Dylan and by many others. However, I think that a lot of the attraction of the film is Dylan himself, the man behind the icon. There are a lot of times when people, both famous and infamous, look back on their lives and sugar coat what may have happened, or claim ignorance in order to show themselves in a better light. In No Direction Home, Dylan seems to address unanswered questions and defend decisions he made 40 years ago, and it is all consistent with what footage from that time showed: that he was just a guy who wanted to make music, that although he had political feelings, he didn't want them to interfere with his career, and that he didn't turn his back on his folk roots, he simply evolved. Unfortunately, it seems not many people understood that. The irony of my empathy while watching the film is not lost on me, nor is my newly found appreciation of Dylan and his music. In fact, while I was compiling my thoughts about this review I realized that I listened to "Hard Rain" about three times before beginning writing. Though I would not consider myself a fan, (yet) I have to give Scorsese an enormous amount of credit for creating a documentary that actually made me like a subject I previously had such ambivalence for, and I would recommend No Direction Home to anyone interested in music and the 1960's, not just Dylan. Don't let the run time scare you off - it can definitely be broken down and watched in increments, though you may find that you may end up not wanting to.
4 stars out of 5