Movies We Like
No Direction Home: Bob Dylan
Obviously Martin Scorsese is one of the most accomplished filmmakers of his generation, now into his sixth decade with a fairly diverse body of work. He has his great masterpiece, Goodfellas, and his next tier of classics: Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and maybe even The King of Comedy. All five of those are with his methody, then alter-ego, Robert De Niro; though not as extraordinary but still of note is his later Leonardo DiCaprio period. Interestingly, between all these films Scorsese has also unleashed many notable documentaries. After being one of many editors on Woodstock, he started with shorts, including a great bio/interview of a druggy hustler (who played the gun dealer in Taxi Driver) called American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince. But since his feature-length docs have mostly been made for television (with subjects ranging from film history to the New York Review of Books to Elia Kazan), his best have been about music. From his first feature doc, the concert film The Last Waltz, through the mini-series The Blues to his more recent outstanding George Harrison: Living in the Material World, the guy proves he loves and understands the world of musicians. It’s his respect for the little details and the big picture that make No Direction Home: Bob Dylan his true documentary masterpiece, and maybe secretly as great as anything he has directed (or at least right under Goodfellas).
Made for PBS’ American Masters series (the source of so many brilliant documentaries of the last thirty years), the film clocks in at over 200 minutes and was shown in two parts. Instead of his famous, show-offy visual flair, more than anything else he has ever done, No Direction Home shows off his storytelling skills. All of the footage was shot before he came on board, so in some ways his role as director was really that of lead editor (though the actual editor job is credited to David Tedeschi, who later was promoted to co-director with Scorsese on his NY Review of Books doc, The 50 Year Argument). Besides the incredible plethora of material (film footage and music, much not even of Dylan), the great choice Scorsese made is that instead of an entire overview of Bob Dylan’s life, he kept it small. After a quick run-through of Dylan’s childhood in Minnesota, the film ONLY really details his New York years from 1961 when he first hit Greenwich Village, until his famous motorcycle accident in ’66 (which let to a brief retirement and then a career reboot). But what an amazing five years that was. The film is also about the other music that was happening at the time that influenced Dylan (and which he would go on to influence) and really works as a history of folk music as well.
Starting out like so many of his New York folk scene young peers, he worshipped Woody Guthrie and was of the generation that followed the mainstream popularity of Pete Seeger and his band The Weavers. Though no one considered Dylan the best guitar player or singer of his time, what separated him from the crowd and instantly made him an icon was his songwriting skills. And instead of the dignified protesters of his era he brought a punk sneer, constantly making up ridiculous biographical tidbits for the public and contradicting the press whenever they tried to box him in. (“I’m not a topical singer.”) But while songs like “A Hard Rain is Gonna Fall,” “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin” became anthems to that mid-'60s generation, Dylan refused to ever fully join the crowd that worshipped him. And then he gave them the middle finger when he “went electric,” becoming a full-fledged rock star and breaking with the softer, folky, singing-troubadour tradition and almost causing Seeger’s head to explode. “I can’t understand the words!” He got lucky being at the right place and the right time, but since he was a reluctant leader and refused to be a generational spokesman, he often comes off as a career opportunist, and that is part of what made him so fascinating.
Conveniently, much of the footage used here comes from director D.A. Pennebaker’s already much heralded documentaries Don’t Look Back and Monterey Pop, as well as the abundance of television appearances on mainstream fare like the The Ed Sullivan and Steve Allen shows. Once Dylan hit the big time his every movement and performance seemed to be photographed or filmed. In a more recent interview used in the film with a more thoughtful Dylan, he still never gives a clear reason why he “abandoned” “the movement,” but like so many of Scorsese’s creations--from Jake La Motta to Travis Bickle and even more so, because they were of the same era, the young turks of Mean Streets--Dylan was a true rebel. First he led the fight against the older generation who couldn’t recognize the times a-changin’ around them and then, as he was anointed king of his generation, he abandoned his own followers. While now he is a definite part of any '60s era youth culture memory, maybe Dylan was really with the Depression era folkies that originally inspired him. Like a classic Scorsese anti-hero he appears to be a man of his time, who couldn’t actually fit into it, though the twist here is it was by his own choice.