A Complete Unknown

Scorsese takes 200 minutes to preserve the mystery of Dylan

No Direction Home: Bob Dylan
directed by Martin Scorsese
TPT-2, Monday (Part 1) and Tuesday (Part 2) at 8:00 and 10:00 p.m.

 

Is Bob Dylan putting us on? His 2004 memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, was surprising for several reasons. It was plainspoken. It was candid. It existed. Sphinxes are hardly wont to reminisce, after all, let alone render their nostalgia in such concrete terms. Now Dylan has lent his imprimatur to Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, a monumental three-and-a-half-hour "American Masters" installment crammed full of unseen live and backstage footage, archival photos, interviews with cronies and foils, and--ta da--the Man Himself's most cogent and fully enunciated look back yet, as coaxed forth by manager and archivist Jeff Rosen in the late '90s. The documentary (out on DVD and airing in two parts on PBS) could be the perfect culmination of the decade that Dylan has spent as a recovering enigma. Or its show of intimacy could be a dress rehearsal for the song-and-dance man's role of a lifetime: the patriarch in autumn, wearily setting the record straight.

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

Pardon my suspicion. Dylan fans generally fall into one of two categories--paranoiac or simpleminded--and I'm too young to have ever trusted the dude in the first place. The combative mid-'60s press conferences, the autobiographical fabrications, the mumbled cryptoquips, the endless string of overrated best-album-since-Blood on the Tracks-es--all were part of the legacy passed on to us post-Boomers. An integral part, too: Long before "irony" was regularly invoked as the fallback defense (or, alternately, the whipping boy) for anything tarter than bland earnestness, Dylan understood it as the native tongue of the public artist, and it's hard not to hear a trace of its accent still in his most sincere confessions. So as Scorsese's film attempts an honest look at a man who communicates through masks, it's worth pausing to puzzle over the dialectic between Bob Dylan and "Bob Dylan."

The story arc of No Direction Home is clear from the start, as flummoxed British folk fans, reeling from the clamor of "Like a Rolling Stone," denounce Dylan as a "prostitute." Flash back to the hero's humble beginnings as a Minnesota misfit fueled by rock 'n' roll and beatnik jive. He bumbles into Minneapolis, where he's exposed to folk music, then travels to New York and discovers just how fungible the details of a Midwesterner's past life become in the Big City. He plots (or, depending on who you ask, lucks) his way to fame as an adjunct member of both the Folk Revival and the New Left. But dissatisfaction with how others perceive him fuels an internal conflict that Dylan enacts in public, lashing out with a rebellious electric performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Weathering accusations of betrayal from his fans, he achieves an artistic apotheosis with "Like a Rolling Stone," yet goes down in the flood of publicity that follows.

Despite his subjects' attempts to impose their hindsight (Joan Baez trots out the same jovially condescending remarks she thinks have been putting Dylan in his place for years), Scorsese fixes events in their moment. There's an overriding sense that incredibly young people had been placed in a position to make crazy decisions, each of which seems preordained only after the fact. That sympathy extends to Dylan's folk nemeses--as foolish as you'd expect, yet also sometimes touching in their naïveté. And Scorsese subtly generates uncertainty by hesitating to ID a musician until about three-quarters of the way through a performance, which either makes you feel superior (Hank Williams, of course) or flummoxed (oh--that's John Jacob Niles). Sometimes the filmmaker's achievements verge on the impossible: When "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" soundtracks a montage of the Kennedy and Oswald assassinations, it registers not as one-dimensional Wonder Years pop history, but as a genuine representation of how prophetic Dylan's words may have felt to his fans at the time.

 

The real hook in No Direction Home, however, is the promise of Dylan's own perspective--and don't think he hasn't been working on this one. Bob has both a pat description of himself--"a musical expeditionary"--and an archetypal narrative to accompany it: "I was born very far from where I'm supposed to be and I'm on my way home." And indeed, his most eloquent sentiments regard his place of birth. For him, Hibbing typifies the sleepy America of the '50s (clumsily scored by Scorsese with "Accentuate the Positive" and "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?"), a fantasy in contrast with the reality of nuclear paranoia. Dylan shares a telling childhood fascination with circuses, and rationalizes his nondelinquent youth with a half-truth that might speak worlds about the character of the upper Midwest: "It was so cold you couldn't be bad."

Finally, the man who succeeded where Cole Porter and Chuck Berry failed--in convincing millions that pop music lyrics could be poetry--has begun to offer insight into his own character. Yet by the end of the first half of No Direction Home, as events overtake him, Dylan's voice blends into the background, overshadowed by big noises like Liam Clancy and Dave Van Ronk, who are as brassy as only the tangentially notorious can be. Dylan's '60s partner in mockery, Bobby Neuwirth, of all people, is among the more perceptive commentators. At the time, in Greenwich Village, the benchmark question for judging an artist's worth, he explains, was "Does he have something to say?" In his moment, it appeared that Dylan had everything to say.

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.

"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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