Dylan's Basement Movie
Bob Dylan fans will find this sidebar a bit superfluous, because most of them have already written it for me. Dylanites will attend the long-awaited local premiere of D.A. Pennebaker's 1966 Eat the Document at Oak Street, ready to engage not only the movie but the way it accords with their hopes for it. The movie of their mind's eye features the poet-prick of Pennebaker's popular tour-vérité, Don't Look Back (1967). It captures the most frenetic moments from Columbia's recently reissued Bob Dylan Live 1966: The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert (The Bootleg Series Vol. 4). It is unfettered by that scourge of many a hippie rock-doc, the ululating Joan Baez. It realizes their vision of an event that Live 1966 liner-notes writer Tony Glover compared to Stravinsky's cataclysmic 1913 debut of The Rite of Spring.
Or maybe Dylanites are wise enough to know when to expect to be let down. They are, after all, Dylanites. And Eat the Document is certainly a movie about blown expectations. I'm referring not only to Pennebaker's wonderful shots of unsatisfied customers leaving Dylan's Manchester shows with complaints that range from lucid disdain ("He's a traitor!") to polite disappointment ("He was a bit overamplified"). I'm referring to Dylan, too. No prick and rarely poetic, he soldiers through his besieged tour, battling homesickness, weakness, even sorrow. If you think he's being ironic when he turns to the camera and says, "I'm sorry for everything I've done. I hope to remedy it soon," you're no more right than I am for guessing he'd be delighted if his fairy godmother would step in with a magic carpet and two tickets to Yankee Stadium.
In other words, he's stranded--and, at times, so are we. If memorable rehearsal footage ultimately serves as an excuse to revisit the superior performances and sound quality of Live 1966, the cute-but-dull scenes with Johnny Cash at the piano or Robbie Robertson on acoustic guitar aren't sweet enough to send you back to Nashville Skyline or The Basement Tapes. Call me a Dylan-tante, but Eat the Document is cult fodder that transcends its cult appeal only when its hero stumbles, gets anxious, or otherwise subverts his air of beautiful cool, and Pennebaker finds himself unintentionally demystifying his own project. Which is probably how Pennebaker wanted it.
My favorite scene is an excruciatingly long car ride in which Dylan and John Lennon fail miserably to create some of the quipping magic Lennon had perfected in the Maysles Brothers' wonderful What's Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A. The scene ends with Dylan hunched over, head in hands in a fit of sheer, beleaguered embarrassment, and Lennon over him yelling, "Pull yourself together, man! Chop chop money money!" We're supposed to think this is ironic, too--the consummate cynic mocking the industry conventions that Dylan and Pennebaker's art film are circumventing. But there's nothing ironic about Lennon's frustration; you wait for him to lean in and say, Listen, you little twerp, I gotta be in this thing too, so sit up and start making some Donovan jokes before these chumps run out of film. "Ballad of a Thin Man" isn't half as compelling.
Eat the Document screens at Oak Street Cinema on Thursday at 5:30, 7:00, and 8:20 p.m.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.