Florida Times-Union — The first thing music fans will notice in watching Martin Scorsese’s Bob Dylan documentary No Direction Home is that Dylan is talking.
On camera. In person.
Chatty, conversational, mischievous. Funny, even.
For longtime Dylanphiles, this is sort of like J.D. Salinger doing a signing at Barnes & Noble.
Only Dylan knows what’s compelled him to embark on this recent surge of self-revelation, which includes last fall’s best-selling memoir Chronicles: Volume I, and a coffee-table book of bric-a-brac that’s been released to accompany the film, but one thing’s for sure: It’s not to definitively clear the cobwebs out of the dusty and more impenetrable corners of the Bard’s psyche.
If anything, the black-clad Dylan who stars here does more of his pathologically addictive dance, dropping hints about truths, then stepping back to distance himself from anything too revealing. Of his early development, Dylan rasps, “Well, it didn’t happen in any of the ways I read about.” A great answer, if you’re John Roberts.
Peppered with many rare and previously unearthed live performances, home demos and session work (though none presented in complete form, unless you buy the DVD, where you’ll find some in the bonus materials), No Direction Home sticks to the period between Dylan’s 1961 arrival in Greenwich Village through his uncomfortable deification by the folk-rock establishment and ending with the 1966 motorcycle accident that kept him off the road and holed up in upstate New York for eight years. It’s bookended by his legend-building performance in Manchester, England — what was long mislabeled in bootlegs as the “Royal Albert Hall” concert — the second-most-famous of his chaotic “electric” performances and the gig where bitter, confused fans stung the singer with cries of “traitor!” and “Judas!”
On those bootlegs, such vitriolic bullets sounded as though they were spat on stage; in the film, they’re almost played as punchlines to a media/fan/counterculture machine that had gotten totally out of hand. “To be on the side of people struggling against something doesn’t mean you’re political,” he says, introducing With God on Our Side, and the movie, like Dylan or anyone, leaves the issue dangling of what a “protest song” is and whether he ever wrote one anyway.
Manchester is the main course of Scorsese’s film, the apex in which the evolution of Robert Zimmerman of Hibbing, Minn., (where Dylan plays down his youth by claiming “it was too cold to be bad”) into some folk-rock Jesus reaches its most absurd, and, according to Scorsese’s storytelling, damning point. The 1966 Dylan bristles at angry, take-take-take fans. He dryly jousts with combative and comically square reporters, many of whom speak in 1950s-propaganda-movie voices and can be easily imagined wearing short-sleeved buttoned-up shirts — the most fantastic example of which is a Swedish guy who admits to having “never heard him sing.”
And he reflexively builds up an ironic-but-uncomfortable line of defense at a nutty state that his then-drummer, Mickey Jones, ably sums up: “Here was someone who everybody loved, and they didn’t like what he was doing. And they were showing it.” (“How can they buy tickets up so fast?” Dylan wonders, not entirely jokingly.) Modern-day Dylan regards it all in hindsight with a detached demurring, but what else would you expect?
What begins as a biographical walk through New York’s folk/beat/hippie scene in Part 1 turns into something more tragic, and Scorsese and Dylan both making the point that when Dylan was christened as a savior, he grew instantly weary of the ludicrousness of it and fled pretty literally into the hills.
There are other telling quotable nuggets scattered throughout — such as Dylan’s claims that “very few of my [ideal performances] could be found on any of my records” and that he still considers his mates in the Band “gallant knights” for their loyalty on those electric shows.
But if there’s any truth, any moral to be found here, it’s how impossibly huge Dylan got, despite what appear to be herculean efforts to the contrary, and how it visibly turned his original resolve into a pathological need for change (and may help explain what he’s doing on Victoria’s Secret commercials now). Moreover, No Direction Home shows us the beginning chapters of what’s turned into drooling celebrity culture being written, intercut with clips of Dylan and Johnny Cash harmonizing on I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, and the jarring shift between purity and noise is telling and scary to watch.
But as with all Dylan lore, that truth is shifting, amorphous, written in comically overlapping fashion by the thousands upon thousands of folks who have either been part of the story, or claimed to. The best evidence of this is the 1965 Newport Folk Festival segment, wherein Pete Seeger, and a half-dozen folks who aren’t Pete Seeger, recount the story in which Seeger was rumored to threaten to hack Bob’s electric cords to pieces with an axe. (For his part, Dylan doesn’t even seem to have figured it out entirely.)
The various tales are stacked up like planes landing at an airport, never making any sense, really. But they’re note-perfect indicators of how history and hand-me-downs have clouded the Dylan myth, fueled not least of all by the man himself, who’s never done a thing to quash it. In a couple of glinting expressions glimpsed by the camera, Dylan seems to enjoy offering no closure. This many years into a career of incalculable influence, there’s probably no definitive Dylan tale to tell, and the words of Bob himself don’t get us any nearer to a gospel truth. But Scorsese and No Direction Home have come about as close as anyone ever has.