A Complete Unknown

Scorsese takes 200 minutes to preserve the mystery of Dylan

And as you witness a 22-year-old Bob Dylan in action, mugging for cameras or craning his neck toward a microphone onstage, you're reminded why associates like Allen Ginsberg reach for a religious explanation of Dylan's creative spirit. But when it comes to his status of amanuensis for an era, however, the root causes may be secular and much less mysterious. If baby boomers belonged to the first generation to define themselves primarily through the media artifacts they consume, Dylan comes across here as their quintessential representative. From Little Richard and James Dean to Kerouac and Woody Guthrie, he rummages through pop culture for a persona that fits. "You could listen to his songs and learn how to live," Dylan says of Guthrie's music. Folk music in general, he notes, "made me feel that I was somebody else."

But once Dylan finds himself on the far side of that divide--as product rather than consumer--he rebels. And as he struggles to retain authority over his image in the second half of No Direction Home, his interview returns to the fore. Still, this commentary adds little that we can't glean from the set list for the notorious Newport Folk performance in '65--from the galloping see-ya-suckers of "Maggie's Farm" to an encore of "It's All Over Now Baby Blue" that begins bitterly but progresses toward an icily calm condescension. From here on, Dylan's songs feel directed against the audience, and none more so than the piece of music around which the documentary is centered, "Like a Rolling Stone."

That song is presented as Dylan's most private act of creativity, sculpted outside the messiness of public appearances in the secret, sacred space of the studio. As the masses rave uncomprehendingly outside, we're made privy to such mysteries as how Al Kooper came to play the distinctive organ hook. You could almost forget that this was Dylan's first Top 10 hit, until you see a shot of the Billboard chart on one of the two weeks it had peaked at No. 2, nestled not incongruously between the Beatles' "Help" and the Beach Boys' "California Girls." For the first time in the documentary, Scorsese loses the balance he has maintained between Dylan's perspective and the culture at large: Obscured by the aggravating swirl of publicity buzzing around Dylan is any sense of "Like a Rolling Stone" as a popular song.

Who was that masked man? Bob Dylan in '64
Doug R. Gilbert/WNET
Who was that masked man? Bob Dylan in '64

"Like a Rolling Stone" didn't wrench "Bob Dylan" out of the public maw, and neither did the eight-year retirement from public performance that followed his 1966 motorcycle accident. The song's creator had to wait more than 30 years to accomplish that, and he needed Martin Scorsese's help. As with Chronicles, No Direction Home is definitive both by default (it exists!) and by design, in what it tells us about how Dylan wants to be remembered: not for his genius or for his originality, but for his stubborn commitment to absolute independence from public opinion. Clip after clip in No Direction Home reminds us why Dylan fans can't ignore him: As a pop artist, his public pronouncements are a part of his body of work, ever shading and enriching our interpretations. But Scorsese never plumbs the real mystery of the man who has spent almost four decades wriggling free from our perceptions: Why can't Bob Dylan ignore us?

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