Martin Scorsese's "No Direction Home" ably documents the explosive apotheosis of Robert Zimmerman of Hibbing, Minn., into Bob Dylan, folk icon, rock star and figure of considerable controversy.
Forty years after Dylan came, saw, conquered and then deconstructed folk music, that controversy still rages. On the night I screened this film in my home, the pause button got a serious workout, as guests became increasingly forthcoming concerning Dylan while the film progressed.
Scorsese's rockumentary, first seen by audiences last week at the Toronto Film Festival, is available in stores today and will air nationally on PBS next week. Part 1 will be on locally at 9 p.m. Monday on WNED and Part 2 at 9 p.m. next Tuesday.
Dylan is still able to infuriate some with his casual, aloof, impregnable persona, and to excite and intrigue others with the same. By the film's end, it's apparent that Dylan saves his truth-telling for his songs, and the rest of the time revels in the fact that no one will ever know whether or not to take him at his word.
It's also apparent that watching this brilliant film isn't going to change anyone's mind about Dylan. If you were a fan to begin with, this will deepen the hues of your admiration for the artist and the man; if you weren't, you'll still be scratching your head and wondering what all the fuss is about.
"No Direction Home" is a masterful bit of documentary making, and like Scorsese's recent series, "The Blues," it offers a compelling blend of historical perspective, pedagogy, insight and context on its subject matter. But the real story here is Dylan's, not Scorsese's. It's one of the most fascinating tales in the history of popular music, and "No Direction Home" doesn't so much deflate the myths in search of the truth as it does explore the ambiguity between those myths and reality.
Dylan is a begrudging tour guide. He'll be frank and forthcoming about certain details of his childhood, but then drop a bomb like this one, concerning his songwriting: "I never did think I had too much to say; still don't."
The story commences in the iron ranges of Hibbing. Dylan felt, he said, like he'd been conceived at the wrong time, maybe even to the wrong parents, and certainly in the wrong town. He describes, with a gorgeously metaphoric accompanying filmic commentary by Scorsese, finding an old record player and a guitar abandoned in a building purchased by his father, Abe Zimmerman, a furniture salesman. For Dylan, these seemed to be portals to another time, or at least another level of experience.
He fell in love with country music, blues, early rock 'n' roll. "It wasn't who it was, it was the sound of it," Dylan says. He played piano and guitar, formed a band that was unceremoniously stopped mid-song by an aghast high school principal during a talent show, and dreamed of getting out of Hibbing. His high school yearbook quote gave his life's goal as "To join Little Richard."
Dylan did get out of town, as far as Minneapolis, where he enrolled in classes at the University of Minnesota, but never bothered to go to them. Instead, he hung out in the coffeehouses of Dinkytown, a bohemian enclave where politics, Beat poetry and folk music intermingled. Hibbing's straight-laced 1950s world was left behind in the budding folk singer's dust, and soon, he changed his name to note the interior change. Did the new moniker come from the poet Dylan Thomas? Yes, say many who knew Dylan then. No, says Dylan today.
Friends described Dylan at the time as being a singer and player of average talents. They'd be shocked upon his return from New York City's Greenwich Village, where a penniless Dylan hitchhiked in 1960, his goal to meet his idol, Woody Guthrie. Dylan did indeed meet Guthrie in the New Jersey hospital he by then called home, visiting the singer on a number of occasions and playing for him.
More significantly, he started to become Guthrie, affecting his style of dress, covering his songs, adopting mannerisms that placed him, according to observers, somewhere between Guthrie and Charlie Chaplin. When he returned to Minnesota after six months, he'd gone from average to exemplary, according to the friends and musicians he'd left behind.
Dylan didn't stay in Minnesota long. The Village called, and the nascent roots music scene -- including folks like the Clancy Brothers, the New Lost City Ramblers, Fred Neil and Dave Van Ronk -- made a place for Dylan to call home. Scorsese unearths incredible footage from this period to frame Dylan's growth. By the time he signed with Columbia Records under the auspices of John Hammond, Dylan was becoming a songwriter.
His first great piece, "Song to Woody," released on his 1962 self-titled debut, paid respect to his idol, and also represented Dylan's moving ahead. Over the next four years, he'd become the leading light of the folk movement, a man touted as a protest singer and voice of a generation, and just as quickly, a rebel who turned his back on folk and embraced a wholly new electric music, releasing a string of albums that would quite literally change the world.
Scorsese foreshadows the film's coda, Dylan's 1966 electric concerts in England, by breaking the chronology to inject bits of those concerts and the vehement reactions of outraged fans who called him "traitor," "Judas" and "sell-out." The power of these performances -- featuring the group that would become The Band -- resonate today as profound marriages of folk, blues and rock, with Dylan's ability to blend Beat poetry, the Bible and folk allegory in a way that had never been done before, burning brightly through.
Scorsese assembles the proper cast of characters to shine a light on the first phase of Dylan's continuing journey. Among them are Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, Liam Clancy, Pete Seeger, Suze Rotollo, Dave Van Ronk and Izzy Young. All note Dylan's ambition, his ability to soak up influences like a sponge, his uncanny gift for capturing the zeitgeist, "of saying what we wanted to say, but couldn't," as Clancy puts it.
But they also make it clear that Dylan was never particularly political in a specific sense, that he felt no responsibility to be the voice of anything other than his own thoughts and visions, that it was pretty much inevitable that he use up people as he used up ideas, in his quest to grab ahold of something transcendent.
Scorsese ably captures the first 10 years in the career of an artist who, even today, remains busy being born.
No Direction Home: Bob Dylan
A Martin Scorsese Picture
207 minutes/Not Rated
Airing on WNED at 9 p.m. Monday and next Tuesday
Review: 4 stars (out of 4)