Monday, August 24, 2020

No Direction Home: Bob Dylan

Pete Seeger sitting next to the piano

Dylan with Joan Baez

Allen Ginsberg

Liam Clancy

NO DIRECTION HOME:  BOB DYLAN – made for TV              B+                  
USA  Great Britain  Japan  (359 mi)  2005  d:  Martin Scorsese       
TV mini-series and DVD (208 mi) 

An artist has got to be careful never really to arrive at a place where he thinks he’s at somewhere.  You always have to realize that you’re constantly in a state of becoming.
—Bob Dylan

Initially screened at three and a half hours on the PBS American Masters television series, a longer 6-hour bootlegged version was released immediately afterwards, both tracing the life of Bob Dylan from the Iron Country in Minnesota to his troubadour period in January 1961 playing folk music in Greenwich Village folk clubs, among the first to actually sign a lucrative record contract, becoming a songwriter and the “voice of a generation,” a label that plagued him, initially enjoying the fame it brought him, but he soon grew tired with the mobs of adulating fans and the repeated press questions asking him about the meaning behind his songs, something he had no interest in whatsoever, avoiding political rallies and demonstrations his entire life even though his songs became anthems of the times and were continually used in antiwar and Civil Rights protests.  While the definitive Dylan documentary remains D. A. Pennebaker’s DON’T LOOK BACK (1967), Scorsese brings his own gravitas to the material (unlike other Scorsese documentaries, he is never behind the camera, as all the material is shot by others, Scorsese was brought in to edit existing material), including ongoing comments from a modern day Dylan offering his own perspective, made with his full cooperation (interviewed by his own manager Jeff Rosen) acting in the role of a narrator over the early years of his career, which is invaluable, as you see a side of him rarely shown to the public, where his critical assessment of other musicians is succinctly accurate, joining a chorus of others offering their own commentary on Dylan, like Dave Van Ronk, Liam Clancy, Allen Ginsberg, Tony Glover, Bruce Langhorne, Al Cooper, Izzy Young, Maria Muldaur, Suze Rotolo, and Joan Baez, all sharing significant experiences together, with the film offering startling early footage of folk performers John Jacob Niles and Odetta.  The meeting of Scorsese and Dylan is a potent mix, where America’s greatest living director meets its greatest living songwriter.  Dylan historically “Never Looks Back,” a quality that Scorsese must admire, as both are constantly reinventing themselves, refusing to stay in the same place artistically, continually evolving into something else, where Dylan views his role as an artist as always becoming and never growing complacent.  The title comes from his lyric Bob Dylan - Like a Rolling Stone (Audio) - YouTube (5:59), listed as the greatest song ever written in 2011 according to Rolling Stone magazine, 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, which may be exerting some degree of bias, considering the name of the magazine, yet nonetheless there it is.  While there is little argument that Dylan’s transition to electric produced three magnificent albums that have had a staggering impact, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde, listed at #31, #4, and #9 in 2012 by 500 Greatest Albums of All Time - Rolling Stone, extraordinary artistic achievements that have stood the test of time, yet Dylan obviously felt suffocated by the folk limitations and needed to broaden his reach, where these albums show Dylan attempting to express how to cope with an everchanging world, creating uniquely liberating expressions that transcend the folk idiom.  Yet much of the film documents the public outrage over his transformation from a folk artist to an electric rock musician, touring internationally with Canadian musicians comprising The Band, where they were booed relentlessly wherever they went, denounced as a musical heretic, yet still playing to sold-out concerts, where the public adored the protest singer he used to be, with so much written about him, elevated to poet laureate status, where his words accurately reflected what people were feeling, but no one could express themselves with the surreal poetry of Bob Dylan, where many of his songs are outright prose, miniature existential masterpieces in time capsules, like Bob Dylan - Visions of Johanna (Audio) - YouTube (7:33), where the ambiguity of meaning offers a contemplative take on the subjective experience, awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016 “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”  One of the odd curiosities is wondering how Dylan remembers a musical repertoire that contains so many words, as unlike jazz musicians who can improvise, his songs are set to often lengthy texts, where just remembering them all throughout his long history of performances requires a unique brain quality that he obviously possesses. 

On par with Scorsese’s The Last Waltz (1978), a live celebratory tribute to The Band returning to the Winterland in San Francisco where they first performed publicly, appearing throughout this film as Dylan’s band where they are mercilessly booed and heckled on tour.  Scorsese never shows full-length songs, only offering snippets, where Dylan’s private life remains private, with no mention of drugs, yet there is a fluidity of movement throughout, beautifully edited, aided by the help of editor David Tedeschi, offering a searingly intense portrait of one of America’s greatest artists, using footage from the 1963-65 Newport Folk Festivals from Murray Lerner’s FESTIVAL (1967), Pennebaker’s DON’T LOOK BACK (1967) and EAT THE DOCUMENT (1972), not afraid to repeat the same songs in different settings, always finding something uniquely relevant about each performance, where it’s clear by the summer of 1966 that Dylan has grown tired of the lengthy tour, where the lines in England are around the block to hear him perform, yet Dylan is fed up with the monotony of the routine and has reached his limit on the road, more than ready to return home, whatever that may be, as television appearances were lined up upon his return.  A motorcycle accident puts a stamp on the end of this period, offering him a chance to escape the pressures around him, withdrawing from the public, where it would be almost 8 years before he’d make another public appearance.  Even the crash itself is surrounded in mystery, as he never sought medical attention, never went to the hospital, so there is no official record of what happened, with rumors swirling that he was on death’s door, yet Dylan claimed he broke several vertebrae in his neck, though many believe his crash was a psychological breakdown, a culmination of having spent nearly 5 years on the road.  According to documentary filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker who accompanied the road tour, he described Dylan as “taking a lot of amphetamine and who-knows-what-else.”  One of the revealing aspects of the film is to place Dylan directly into the heart of the Woody Guthrie folk tradition of singing protest songs, yet unlike Guthrie and Pete Seeger and others, Dylan was never overtly political in espousing his beliefs, preferring to accentuate universal themes even while criticizing social injustice, where Ginsberg in particular was profoundly moved to tears upon hearing Bob Dylan - A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall (Audio) - YouTube (6:51), realizing the torch had been passed from his generation to the next (seen accompanied by a montage of Kennedy-era footage), describing it as akin to a Biblical prophecy designed “to make your hair stand on end.”  Sadly, neither Ginsberg nor Van Ronk, both so instrumental to this film, would live long enough to see this documentary completed.  Tribute must be paid to so many of the poets and performers who spoke out about a disenchantment with our leaders, a fear of the future, and the need for equality and civil rights, as they had their pulse on a singular moment in history, with their resounding message feeling perhaps even more evocative today, as disillusion remains.  The film actually begins in Dylan’s formative years in Hibbing, Minnesota, a small town reflective of the heartland of America, known for hard work, where the town is surrounded by mounds of iron ore being dug up by the mining industry, home to the largest open-pit iron mine in the world, where Dylan recalls it was too cold to be rebellious, as that cold winter air would knock you on your ass.  Nonetheless, his growing interest in music was from listening to the radio, developing a rabid interest in listening to records, drawing inspiration to become a musician, immersing himself in the music of Woody Guthrie, literally mimicking his unique talents when he made his way to the coffee clubs of New York where, like a sponge, he literally drew upon the wealth of artistic talent surrounding him, where over the course of six months he matured into an original talent, much like the overnight success attributed to blues legend Robert Johnson, making a deal with the devil according to the myth, as no one could literally transform themselves overnight into the greatest talent alive.  John Hammond of Columbia records, normally associated with the cream of the crop of mainstream artists, home to Percy Faith, Johnny Mathis, and Doris Day, took a chance with Dylan, signing him to a record contract, and while the first two didn’t sell well, it gave Dylan the opportunity to learn the business, eventually writing his own songs and transforming his career overnight.  

While there was a certain amount of jealous rivalry among his fellow folk artists, most were surprised that he was “the chosen one,” as just a few months earlier he was somewhere in the middle of the mix, never singing or playing that well, never viewed as particularly talented, with a propensity to make up wild stories about his past, with most associating him as the guy that sang all those Woody Guthrie songs.  What separated him from the rest was his ability to endlessly write songs, like a Mozart child prodigy, where it was relatively easy for him, simply writing all the time, jotting down lyrics on anything that was available, even during conversations with others.  Joan Baez, an early girlfriend, was amazed at how easily words streamed out of his brain, utterly transfixed by his awesome talent.  They were an interesting pair, as she was positively celestial in her singing, with the voice of an angel, while he was this ragamuffin in boots looking more like a hobo, denied entrance to a motel on the road due to his frazzled appearance, which motivated him to write overnight a song with attitude and a sneer, Bob Dylan - Chimes Of freedom - video dailymotion (8:07), described by Crawdaddy! magazine founder and rock music critic Paul Williams as Dylan’s Sermon on the Mount.  Perhaps the culmination of Dylan’s own sense of moral hypocrisy was revealed when at the end of 1963, just weeks after the assassination of President Kennedy, he was awarded the Tom Paine Award by the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, a longstanding group espousing leftist beliefs, with members he felt were “old and balding.”  Manipulated and constrained by the folk and protest movements, a likely intoxicated 22-year old Dylan questioned the role of the committee itself, considering them thoroughly outdated, finding a little bit of Lee Harvey Oswald in every aspect of American culture, including the committee and even himself, drawing gasps from the crowd, with Scorsese himself reading excerpts from his speech that night.  Dylan wrote about this earlier, singing about the Klu Klux Klansman murderer of Medgar Evers, viewing him as a small piece of a larger puzzle, an insignificant cog in the machine of racism, performing at the March on Washington in August 1963, standing just a few feet from Martin Luther King when he made his “I Have a Dream” speech, Bob Dylan - Only A Pawn In Their Game (March On Washington 1963) [BEST QUALITY] (3:30). Dylan has always shied away from the deeper meanings of his songs, preferring to have no path to follow and no message to send, where he steadfastly refuses all proclamations that he is a generational prophet or even a musical genius, living a secluded life away from all the fuss, yet his singular capacity for longevity is startling, crossing multiple generations by now, remaining something of an enigma, hard to pin point or define, confounding legendary Chicago radio host Studs Terkel by daring to defy commonly held views, “I’m not a topical songwriter. I don’t even like that word,” where the endless press conference questions accompanying road tours grew quite contentious, as did his relationship with his adoring throngs loving the folk music period of Bob Dylan, Mr. Tambourine Man (Live at the Newport Folk Festival. 1964) YouTube (5:56), but refused to entertain this noisy transition to electric, Bob Dylan - Ballad of a thin man "No direction home" (3:33).  Defiantly refusing to bow down under pressure, singleminded in his purpose to perform the music he wanted, he steamrolled his way through the England tour of 1966 despite receiving an onslaught of hostile catcalls from disenchanted fans who felt betrayed, calling him “Judas,” believing he’d sold out and gone commercial, throwing it right back in their faces, No direction home ending scene (4:14), answering their rudeness with greater determination to play it even louder.  Unable to uplift the population with grand utopian visions of hope and optimism forever, a darker vision set in, where the end of the 60’s was met with a hard thud, as doubt, disillusion, and disappointment crept in, with Dylan only expressing what the rest of us felt as well, as the end of an era of social consciousness felt like the end of idealization and hope.  What’s perhaps most remarkable, by the end of the film Dylan was only 25 years of age.   


Independent American filmmaker Jim Jarmusch asked Scorsese to recall the first time he met the subject of his latest documentary, No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005).  It was in the 1970’s, and Dylan asked him, “Do you know about this guy, Fassbinder?  You should see his film, Beware of a Holy Whore.”

No comments:

Post a Comment