Scorsese on Dylan: right on target, so direct
September 20, 2005
It takes all of 60 seconds for a Dylanoholic – and aren’t we all there by now? – to realize the unprecedented accomplishment that is “No Direction Home.”Martin Scorsese’s three-plus-hour documentary opens with a close-up on the recent version of Bob Dylan. It’s Dylan, all right – the crinkled hair, the eyes that grow bluer over the years, and especially, the nasal voice with those distinctive turns of phrase and marvelous cadences.But it also becomes apparent that this is a Dylan the public has probably never seen. Those eyes are focused and clear as Dylan speaks, with uncommon directness, about his childhood, an attraction to music that crossed over to the mystical, and his feeling of detachment from everything else. This is not the same Dylan from last year’s “60 Minutes” segment, evasive and testy. It is not the Dylan of last year’s “Chronicles,” a memoir that tended to zero in on periods, people and episodes that rank low in terms of interest and importance.
In this interview, Dylan seems genuinely interested in illuminating, as best he can perhaps, the points of Bobology that matter most: his childhood, his early days in Greenwich Village, and what it was like being a 21-year-old, fresh out of the nowhere of Hibbing, Minn., hailed as “the voice of a generation” (a designation he abhorred). Scorsese whittles his focus down mostly to 1961-66, unparalleled years that span the debut “Bob Dylan” to the incomparable “Blonde on Blonde.”Also squeezed into that first bit of screen time is Dylan, the performer. The clip is a watershed moment: Dylan, backed by members of what would become The Band, playing his most significant song, the biting, blistering “Like a Rolling Stone.” It’s 1966, in England, where Dylan is being alternately deified as a prophet and decried as a traitor – “Judas,” as an audience member infamously screams – for selling out on acoustic folk music in favor of electric rock ‘n’ roll.Emboldened by the catcalls and controversy, pushed on by guitarist Robert Robertson, Dylan pours his all into the performance. Connected to that inexplicable power that he claims as the source of his artistry, Dylan stretches the phrases, wrings emotion out of words like “how” and “own.” It is a moment of artistry and rebellion, of division and solitude. If there is a better example of self-expression, self-determination even, I’m dying to see it. Apparently it was enough for Dylan; he would take an eight-year break from playing concerts soon after.Thus concludes the first minute of “No Direction Home.”Scorsese, who directed the concert documentary “The Last Waltz” and served as assistant director on “Woodstock,” paints this latest masterpiece with all kinds of brilliant strokes. The concert footage is not just entertainment but history: the folkie Dylan singing at 1963’s March on Washington (where he was upstaged by Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech); Dylan ushering in the rock era by plugging in at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. But the footage is also powerful entertainment; even those who could never hear the appeal of Dylan’s voice might be won over by his wit, confidence and charisma.
Better than any book or film, and almost as good as the songs themselves, “No Direction Home” gets near the core of what made Bob Dylan out of Robert Zimmerman. In that opening sequence, Dylan himself offers a view that is probably the closest we’ll ever come to understanding the artist. Listening, as a kid, to the old hillbilly song “Drifting Too Far From the Shore,” Dylan was transported out of Hibbing, a town he calls “on its way to nowhere.” “The sound of the record,” he continues, “made me feel like I was somebody else, like I was maybe not born to the right parents. I was born very far from where I’m supposed to be, and so I’m on my way home.”So that is what we’ve been witnessing these 44 years: an ambitious and gifted musician, an alien to his world, wading through religion and romance, folk and blues, acrimony and adulation, confusion and certainty, trying to find a place to call home.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org