Last night we watched Part I of "No Direction Home," Martin Scorsese's tribute to Bob Dylan. It originally aired as part of the excellent PBS "American Masters" series, and is now out on DVD. (If I recall correctly, wmtc friend G The Library Bitch blogged about it when it was on TV.)
"No Direction Home" isn't a standard biography, as it profiles Dylan's life and career only up to 1966. I'm not sure that people who don't already get Dylan - his influence, his importance, his outsized creativity - would appreciate this movie, although I'd like to know. (I'd love to hear an impression of the film from someone who didn't already love Dylan.)
For me, this movie was extremely intense, a treasure trove of artistic and political heroes. I've always understood Dylan as an heir to Woody Guthrie and Allen Ginsberg. To hear Allen Ginsberg say that when he first heard "Hard Rain", he wept, because he realized the torch had been passed to a new generation - that just gives me chills. Woody Guthrie is a lifelong hero of mine, it's fair to say I grew up idolizing him. Allen Ginsberg was one of the greatest American artists, not to mention a New York City legend and a freedom fighter in the truest sense. This film celebrates the connections between Dylan and the traditions of both Guthrie and Ginsberg.
I've also always marveled at Dylan's ability to absorb so many disparate musical influences and make them his own. The film is full of early footage of those influences - Odetta, Muddy Waters (Muddy at Newport! I must see more!!), Josh White.
"No Direction Home" traces Dylan's early life in Minnesota, where he felt he had been born in the wrong place and time, to his world-changing pilgrimage to find Woody Guthrie, which brought him to the thriving folk music scene in New York City's Greenwich Village. There, he invented a new past for himself, and re-invented his music. The movie gives a really potent portrait of that legendary music scene, and how Dylan changed it.
Interspersed throughout the movie is footage from the famous concert in England, known (incorrectly) as the Royal Albert Hall show, May 17, 1966. There, in the expression of the time, "Dylan goes electric", to a chorus of boos and jeers, where his audience was sure he had "sold out" and "gone pop". His backing band, of course, is The Band. (You can catch little glimpses of the young and beautiful (and Canadian) Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko.)
This is why I'm not sure that someone unfamiliar with Dylan would appreciate this movie. If you don't know what that concert is and what happened there, would these scenes make any sense? Would it maybe give the movie some interesting mystery?
Dylan's artistic energy was so gigantic in those days, that by the time an album would come out, he was way past it. His fans wanted to hear the Dylan on the album they had bought, but he was busy exploring something new. That would be the story of his creative life for decades to come.
And that's one remarkable thing about this movie. It's a very deep, rich portrait of an artist, but it ends at 1966. You hear all these other important artists - Ginsberg, Liam Clancy, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez - extolling Dylan's genius, and it's only 1963. His best work is still far ahead of him.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about "No Direction Home" is seeing Bob Dylan, the man, speak. He's spent decades focusing only on the music, never on himself, thwarting the cultural desire to confuse the person and the music. And here he is, talking, about himself.
It's obvious we're listening to today's Bob Dylan give his version of events then, that we're hearing about those events through the filter of time - but that's fine. It's real because it's his filter, and his memories. We've got Scorsese for historical accuracy, but Dylan can give us his own subjective truth.