No Direction Home Bob Dylan
February 4, 2006
Starring: Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, Liam Clancy, John Cohen, Mickey Jones, Al Kooper, Bruce Langhorne, Harold Leventhal, Mitch Miller, Maria Muldaur, Bob Neuwirth, D.A. Pennebaker, Pete Seeger, ,
So much has been written about Bob Dylan. His career has been well-documented, including some truly excellent documentaries, most notably Don’t Look Back (1967) by D.A. Pennebaker. So what is there left to say? Apparently, Martin Scorsese thought otherwise and with Dylan’s participation made an over three hour documentary chronicling his life and career, from the early days growing up in Minnesota to 1966 when he ascended to mainstream success. It makes sense that Scorsese would pick this period of Dylan’s life: it is the musician’s most prolific, colourful time when he created some of his best, most memorable music.
Dylan came out of small-town America and was subjected to its values at a young age. But he discovered music and was exposed to traveling carnivals that suggested to him another way of life that was very appealing. Scorsese cuts back and forth from Dylan’s early life to concert footage in 1966 when he went electric and alienated his fans that wanted him to stay an acoustic folky. But like any great artist, Dylan refused to be pigeon-holed.
No Direction Home traces his well-known influences, like Jack Kerouac and Woody Guthrie, with lesser-known ones. However, it was the honest visions of America that Kerouac and Guthrie wrote of that appealed to Dylan the most. Scorsese shows the varied musical influences that Dylan observed and then absorbed, resulting in his own style.
Scorsese also examines Dylan’s immersion in the Greenwich Village folk music scene in New York City and shows off some fantastic archival footage of not just Dylan at that young age but other folk artists at the time. It was the Newport Folk Festival in ’63 that really made Dylan. It was a large gathering of folk musicians and he showcased what would be an impressive array of protest songs, firmly establishing himself as the heir apparent to Guthrie and Pete Seeger.
However, the more popular he became the more uncomfortable he was with this newfound fame. Everyone wanted a piece of him and wanted him to keep repeating himself. So, he stopped writing topical material and went from acoustic to electric which was considered the biggest sin among his fans as footage from a tour of England amply demonstrates.
Among the highlights on this impressive, two-DVD set is Allen Ginsberg’s emotional recollection of the first time he heard Dylan’s music and realized that the torch had been passed from the Beats to this new generation that Dylan represented. Also, Joan Baez’s observations of Dylan back then when they were both young is priceless. She offers some excellent remarks on the man’s character but pretty much admits that she still doesn’t know him all that well.
Ultimately, there are few revelations in No Direction Home for Dylan devotees but it is an excellent primer for the casual fan and the uninitiated. One of the things that emerges from this documentary is how well Dylan was at creating his own image. He made up his own biography that was complete fabrication. He gave (and continues to) little away about himself and this forces one to focus on the music and not the man. If anything, Dylan embodied the spirit of the times he lived in. He somehow tapped into the collective unconscious of the ‘60s and said what people were thinking and feeling but were unable to articulate. That was his genius. No Direction Home is an excellent documentary that is not just about Dylan but the times he came from, how he shaped them and how they, in turn, shaped him.
There are eight “Full Length Bob Dylan Performances” including a nice rendition of “Man of Constant Sorrow” on a March 1964 U.S. TV special and “Mr. Tamborine Man” at the Newport Folk Festival. Another highlight is a noisy, electric version of “Like a Rolling Stone” in Newcastle, U.K. in May 1966 that Dylan howls through as if he’s in pain or doing just to piss of the clearly restless audience.
There are four “Guest Performances” performed by folk musicians that were interviewed for this doc. Joan Baez is the highlight as she performs a nice rendition of “Love is Just a Four Letter Word” in her kitchen, even affecting Dylan’s distinctive vocals at one point.
Finally, there‘s an “Unused 1965 Promotional Spot for ‘Positively 4th Street.’” It basically encapsulates the Dylan concert-going experience in four minutes juxtaposing grainy, black and white footage of Dylan performing and his fans going to see him in concert while their various comments on his music can be heard in voiceover.