/ 28 September 2005

Dylan documentary wins over fans, critics

Modern culture has the unfortunate tendency to deify cultural heroes and build them into statues and symbols, robbed of their humanity.

Bob Dylan’s passage from a young and earnest songwriter to a pop icon seen as the prophet of a generation typified the process of cultural deification, driving him to turn his back in bitterness on the very people and processes that made him a star. His success, he felt, tried to rob him of his own life.

In the hands of an ordinary filmmaker, such material might quickly descend into cliché, a high-brow version of pop channel VH1’s tabloid-style Behind the Music programmes about good rock stars gone bad.

But in the hands of Martin Scorsese, the result is a documentary masterpiece that has earned unanimous praise from critics as it documents Dylan’s meteoric rise and his backlash of paranoia and personal disintegration.

No Direction Home screened in two parts on Monday and Tuesday in the United States and the United Kingdom, where it was also made available for immediate purchase on DVD.

Based on hundreds of hours of archival footage and extensive interviews with Dylan and many of his contemporaries and collaborators, the three-and-a-half hour movie does not attempt to solve the mystery of Dylan’s identity. Instead, it gives viewers a sense of what it meant to be Bob Dylan at that tumultuous time in US history.

The film does provide an answer to the first question on many viewers’ minds — the meaning of the title. It opens with a captivating pastiche of the sounds and images that transformed Robert Zimmerman of Hibbings, Minnesota, into Bob Dylan, the fabled troubadour of Greenwich Village.

”I was born very far from where I’m supposed to be,” Dylan says. ”So maybe I’m on my way home.”

The documentary ends with a stressed-out Dylan five years later, after his adoption of electrical instruments had revolutionised rock’n’roll but antagonised his folk fans, who called him a traitor.

”I just want to go home,” he says.

The two-part documentary, which aired on the little-watched Public Broadcasting Service, elicited plaudits such as ”thoroughly captivating” from the New York Daily News, ”brilliant and extraordinary” from the San Francisco Chronicle and ”magnificent” from The Washington Post.

While few would argue with that praise, perhaps the most extraordinary thing is that 40 years after his rise, the notorious recluse is finally speaking freely to the camera, without a hint of either shyness or arrogance.

Part of the reason may be that Dylan never even met Scorsese during the making of the movie.

According to Rolling Stone magazine, Dylan was hardly interested in the movie. This left the director of movies such as The Aviator and Goodfellas to cobble together the documentary from interviews recorded by Dylan’s manager and archivist.

Scorsese also gained complete access to Dylan’s large archive of previously unreleased concert footage and was granted artistic freedom to make whatever film he considered suitable.

With such a wealth of material, it is hard to pick highlights.

Is it the black-leather jacketed pensioner, candidly looking back on his life and remembering with a twinkle in his eye two early girlfriends who ”brought out the poet in me”? Or perhaps the vibrant but hitherto unseen performances of Like a Rolling Stone at a 1966 British concert, or Maggy’s Farm the same year, when a protest by the folk-music audience prompted Dylan to tell his band, ”OK, play it fucking loud”?

There are also memorable interviews with contemporaries, such as Allen Ginsburg recalling how he wept when he first heard Dylan’s Hard Rain.

Some may feel shortchanged by the film’s failure to delve into Dylan’s personal life, his drug use and his stormy relationships with friends. But the point of the movie is to examine the nature and effect of Dylan’s genius, and it reaches the sensible conclusion that genius, by its very definition, defies all attempts to examine, analyse and reduce it to its parts.

”I don’t know to this day what he’s all about,” Joan Baez says near the end of the film. ”All I know is what he gave us.” — Sapa-DPA