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September 28, 2005

No Direction Home

Martin Scorsese - 2005
Paramount Region 1 DVD

In the song "All Across the Watchtower", Bob Dylan sings about a joker and a thief. By the end of the two discs that comprise No Direction Home, I was pretty much convinced that Dylan is both a joker and a thief. The film covers Dylan's life, growing up in Hibbing, Minnesota, through his concert tour of Europe in 1966, with titles noting the motorcycle accident of July 29, 1966. Dylan as joker can be seen in his interviews of the time, with Dylan trapped between being taken too seriously and and sometimes not seriously enough. The thief is the budding musicologist who stole hundreds of records from his friends while developing a broader knowledge of folk music and creating his style.

In some ways No Direction Home compliments parts of David Hadju's account of the creation of Bob Dylan, Positively Fourth Street. In establishing his credentials as a folk singer, Dylan was as creative as rap artists creating their "street cred". Prior to getting a recording contract, Dylan created the image of of a much traveled singing hobo, a contemporary Woodie Guthrie. Stories of growing up in Gallup, New Mexico or riding the rails were taken as fact. Part of the film explores the selling of Bob Dylan, with the song writer paving the way for the performer. In one part, Scorsese has cut excerpts from several cover versions of "Blowin' in the Wind" together. In the beginning of the second disc, Dylan is seen stating twice that all of his songs are "protest songs". The protest could be against success that was greater than that of his peers, against unwanted acclamation, against the constaint examination of every note and word written and performed.

Dave Van Ronk sums up Dylan best in pointing out how Dylan changed his image to be what he thought the public was looking for, the Zelig of folk music. With Bob Dylan, people saw what they wanted to see. With the recent interviews, there is no way of really knowing if Dylan is being any more honest now than he was in the past or if he is simply presenting a new image, the artist as a more reflective man. The bigger question may if Bob Dylan still matters and if so, why? I ask this question as one who identified himself as a big Dylan fan during the years of No Direction Home. I have to suspect that just as audience members felt personally betrayed by Dylan for picking up the electric guitar, that most of the criticism of No Direction Home will be autobiographical, based on the respective writer's sense of their relationship with Bob Dylan.

In my case, you can blame my mom for bringing home the first album and letting me know that it was by the guy who wrote "Blowin' in the Wind". I was familiar with the version by Peter, Paul and Mary, a big hit in the summer of 1963. I probably would have been blown away had I also known that PP & M was the creation of manager Albert Grossman, making them the O-Town of folk music. The first album was much like other folk albums of the early Sixties with versions of traditional songs and a couple of originals. By the time the second album came out, I was a confirmed fan. I saw Dylan in concert twice, first in Denver in 1966, and in 1974 at Madison Square Garden when he resumed performing live following the accident. I had also seen Don't Look Back, and continued buying albums up through John Wesley Harding.

Much of No Direction Home is footage of Dylan in concert in England in 1966. Maybe I'm missing something but considering that Bringing It All Back Home had been out for almost a year, the audience should have known that Dylan had changed musically. During the concert I attended in Denver, there was no problem with Dylan performing with with his band, The Band as they were to be known. Maybe people in England figured that by virtue of buying tickets they bought the right to boo, yell and complain that Bob Dylan deserted folk music. Maybe the disappointed English fans should have taken a clue from the Dylan song, "I Don't Believe You", and pretended they never met Dylan.

While Martin Scorsese is credited as the director, what he has done here has been to primarily shape hours of footage into a coherent, cohesive unit. This isn't as personal a vision as, for example, My Voyage to Italy, or Scorsese's personalized versions of film history. In a recent interview, Scorsese's usual editor, Thelma Schoonmaker notes that Scorsese let Dylan and the others "speak for themselves". Dylan points out that his electric music was never "folk-rock". Although he correctly credits Sonny Bono for this hybrid, he makes it clear that he didn't care for this style and seems annoyed that other musicians even bothered covering Dylan's songs. (Sonny Bono may seem like an easy mark, but "Needles and Pins" is one of the best pop songs ever written.) Probably the best title for a Bob Dylan album was Another Side of Bob Dylan. For Bob Dylan, there always seems to be another side.

For those looking for those other sides, check here.

Posted by peter at September 28, 2005 04:37 PM