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No Direction Home: Bob Dylan

Reviewed By Lucas Stensland
Posted 01/16/06 20:47:32

"One Icon Studies Another"
5 stars (Awesome)

Once upon a time Martin Scorsese told an interviewer that he had originally intended to begin his film Mean Streets with a quote from Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues": "Twenty years of schoolin' and they put you on the dayshift." That a violent mafia drama about family conflict in Little Italy would begin with a Dylan quote regarding the futileness of education would have seemed incongruent to viewers, but Scorsese explained to the interviewer that the lyric was not about college and employment but rather where people end up in life. Years down the road Scorsese again demonstrates, this time on a much grander scale, his crafty and deep understanding of Bob Dylan.

Scorsese's three-and-a-half-hour documentary No Direction Home: Bob Dylan tells the tale of Dylan's musical life from his childhood in Hibbing, Minnesota to 1966, the year of his final tour for the decade. The film notes the oft-cited parts of the Dylan legacy but never treats them as fantastic elements of an already mythical-enough figure. Woody Guthrie, the motorcycle accident, "Judas!", going electric, his high school talent-show performance, they're all covered here. But the film's success is in Scorsese's ability at evincing the enormity of Dylan's influence and genius while simultaneously revealing the personal dilemma Dylan faced at being called the "voice of his generation," a label he detested.

Allowing entry into the surreal nature of Dylan's daily life, one scene has the singer fast asleep in the back of a car, riding through rural England while his latest hit plays on the radio. This short scene not only acts as a factual absurdity for a Hibbing-born boy to encounter, it also exhibits an artist who can't escape himself. Oddly enough, it is this notion of the "real" Bob Dylan that is ostensibly the only complex idea he is unable to communicate to his audience.

Not having filmed any of the interviews himself, Scorsese utilizes all source material as archival, and etches out a narrative that surfaces not album names and gushing praise an icon doesn't need, but rather a character study that harmonizes with its cultural climate; whether the singer will admit it or not, young Dylan and the 1960s are inseparable. And it is young and old Dylan's refusal of any title or crown that gives this film, and Dylan's legacy, a rich dialectic.

To this day Dylan still fights the label that he is or ever was a political or topical songwriter. His early albums, however, were plugged full of, say, social-concern songs that dealt with various themes of their day: blind patriotism, civil rights, war, etc. But these albums were also full of songs of comedy and romance. And when he has returned to social-issue songs in later years, with "Hurricane" or "George Jackson," they have often sounded disingenuous, pandering for commercial success. It turns out songs like "Visions of Johanna" and "Floater (Too Much To Ask)" possibly could say more about the human spirit than "Only a Pawn in Their Game." No Direction Home clearly shows an artist fighting to evolve while his fans beg him to grow stale.

In Stephen E. Severn's Film Quarterly essay on the event of the reissue of Scorsese's The Last Waltz (a film in which Dylan appears), he introduced a thematic motif that is likewise a cardinal trait of the protagonists in certain of the director's flicks: image being manipulated as a means of eliminating risk. And Scorsese's latest firmly belongs in this category. Just as The Last Waltz's Robbie Robertson or The King of Comedy's Rupert Pupkin attempted to devise media images in order to transition themselves into other commercial entities/commodities (talk-show host and movie star, respectively), Dylan rebuked all Leftist folksinger attributes and media assignments of spokesmanship and resubmitted himself as a pop-music rock 'n' roller. Of course, rock music would also never be the same again.

The recent entries in Scorsese's filmography have suffered criticism for being too enamored with a David Lean-esque golden Hollywood form and converting from his former fixation on Welles and Cassavetes, and so perhaps No Direction Home proves true that a biographer's undertaking is often informed with a certain amount of autobiography. Scorsese, like Dylan, is growing, for better or worse, and is tied stalwartly to the foundation and history of his medium. Perhaps that is why the pairing of Scorsese and Dylan is so auspicious: Neither artist would ever think to create something new and instead feed off old forms, ironically becoming two of the most imitated and influential figures in the last fifty years of pop culture.

Utilizing close-ups and an aural montage of flashbulbs and camera clickings, Scorsese paints a picture of Dylan's 1966 press conferences as being repetitive and claustrophobic freak shows in which everybody has questions and nobody wants answers. Stressed out with his audience, media, drugs and touring, Dylan appears on the edge of a breakdown.

The film ends with a written epilogue that is akin to the one that concludes arguably Scorsese's last masterpiece. Stating that Dylan didn't tour again for eight years but continued writing and recording songs, Scorsese reminds one of the two main protagonists' divorce in Goodfellas that is found only in its written epilogue. Both epilogues, neither of which are obvious outcomes, leave the viewer desiring to see the text played out. By avoiding the typical epilogue-as-statement-of-eternity (a still-around mode of classical narration that dictates all conflict be resolved and that life will continue forever in this way), Scorsese's written epilogues stress that only the film is ending and that the lives of these characters will continue to meet with conflict and drama within a complicated and changing social environment: in short, real life.

Scorsese has given a gift to music and film fans alike. The cinema verite-styled documentary Dont Look Back reported an ignominious artist who didn't seem to have many grounds for his hostility and indifference. To say No Direction Home breathes new life into that canonized film is not an overstatement. Scorsese's latest is so spellbinding that it will not only renew further interest in Dylan but has the ability to create it.

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