I watched No Direction Home this week and came away with some strong emotions. I thought the documentary was a mixed bag though overall it was quite interesting and compelling. My quarrels were mostly with the editing, chronology and narrative choices (for more on Scorcese’s thinking on this issue view this clip from his after-show PBS interview with Charlie Rose). I found that Scorcese and his editors bounced around chronologically in Bob Dylan‘s life a little too freely for my taste. In one scene, we’re in the Greenwich Village coffee houses in the next scene were a few years later or earlier in his career. Perhaps the editing choices made sense in Scorcese’s head, but I couldn’t quite follow some of the jumps and what was his point in making them. I’m not saying I wanted a linear chronological film because that would’ve been stultifying creatively.
I also thought Dylan himself was less than articulate in some of his statements. Simon Schama, reviewing the documentary in The Guardian writes:
But hey, he insists he was never ever a political singer. Yeah, right. Look, Dylan, there you are, in a field in Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1963 with black civil rights workers, singing, “He’s only a pawn in the game” about the man who killed civil rights pioneer Medgar Evers. Well, he shrugs, “To be on the side of people who are struggling doesn’t necessarily mean you’re political.” Huh?
I think what’s happening here is that Dylan is using “political” in its most pejorative and debased sense. He wants nothing to do with electoral or party politics or even ideological polemics. I can understand that response. But I do agree with Schama that in this and other passages from the film “he doth protest too much.”
Scorcese himself acknowledges some of this (by implication) when he says to Charlie Rose (I paraphrase): “It wasn’t so much the words [Dylan used], it was the expression on his face.” Scorcese was being kind here because Dylan comes across in some instances as disappointly vague, uncommunicative or even obtuse. But he is right in that Dylan’s face is the kind of face that filmmakers like Martin Scorcese love–deeply lined and furrowed and filled with the hard knocks of life.
By the way, it’s unfortunate that Scorcese during this interview, when asked by Rose about the title’s significance, didn’t reveal that No Direction Home derives from the title of Robert Shelton’s authoritative Dylan biography.
Roger Ebert, in his review, gets at my own lingering feelings of mistrust of Dylan after viewing Don’t Look Back:
Then in 1968, I saw “Don’t Look Back” (1967), D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary about Dylan’s 1965 tour of Great Britain. In my review, I called the movie “a fascinating exercise in self-revelation,” and added: “The portrait that emerges is not a pretty one.” Dylan is seen not as a “lone, ethical figure standing up against the phonies,” I wrote, but is “immature, petty, vindictive, lacking a sense of humor, overly impressed with his own importance and not very bright.”
I felt betrayed. In “Don’t Look Back,” he mercilessly puts down a student journalist, and is rude to journalists, hotel managers, fans. Although Joan Baez was the first to call him on her stage when he was unknown, after she joins the tour, he does not ask her to sing with him. Eventually she bails out and goes home.
The film fixed my ideas about Dylan for years. Now Scorsese’s “No Direction Home: Bob Dylan,” creates a portrait that is deep, sympathetic, perceptive and yet finally leaves Dylan shrouded in mystery, which is where he properly lives.
Don’t Look Back portrayed Dylan as a coiled rattlesnake ready to strike. And yes, he wasn’t very nice. And in the 1970s, when I first saw the film all those who adored Dylan wanted him to be nice as we ourselves wanted to be nice. But what Scorcese has done brilliantly is to place Dylan’s meanness, snappishness and downright churlishness in cultural and societal context. Dylan was mean-spirited because he was simply collapsing under the weight of stardom and expectations that others had for him. He ultimately came to understand that all this was a trap and that in order to be true to his artistic individuality he had to withdraw and go his own way in solitude (hence his withdrawal from touring for eight years after the motorcycle accident). Anyone can sympathize with that and now I do.
Facets of the film I liked: the interviews with Dylan collaborators, friends, lovers, etc. were very illuminating. And the concert and recording studio footage was riveting (to someone like me who’s been a fan since 1967 and watched a score of performances on TV). Also, I’d never heard Dylan attempt to be funny before watching this film. It’s nice to know the man has a sense of humor because most of the time he comes across as an intense, dour and doleful soul.
But Scorcese succeeds brilliantly in not only capturing Dylan’s musical mentors and their impact on his career; but also in capturing the club owners, record producers, concert managers and promoters without whom Dylan would have left no impact on our culture. Izzy Young, owner of the Folklore Center, gave Dylan his first New York public concert. Young is delightful in his candid acknowledgment that Dylan conned him from the start. He didn’t mind “because the songs were so damn good.” The elegant, urbane and ultimate fuddy-duddy, Mitch Miller comes across very sympathetically. He says he was brought up in music to appreciate a tuneful voice like Tony Bennett. Frankly, he didn’t understand Dylan’s appeal. But Miller was a brilliant producer because he let his producers (like John Hammond) do what they were supposed to do–find new talent. Though Miller may not have understood Dylan musically, he trusted Hammond and Hammond did understand him.
Can you imagine the Mitch Miller of today’s record studio? What would he/she say to an odd, angular and deeply disconcerting talent like a latter day Dylan if he met him in a recording studio? Would he trust someone’s instinct that this Dylan would amount to something and was worth taking a chance on? You’re damn straight he/she wouldn’t. They couldn’t. Music doesn’t work that way anymore. No one’s taking chances. An odd talent gets displaced…never finds its place. That’s why Bob Zimmerman could never become Bob Dylan today. Bob Dylan today might never even get out of Minneapolis, let alone Hibbing. And that’s the greatest tragedy imaginable.