Monday 3 October 2005

No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005) - ickleReview (TV and video)

Martin Scorsese made-for-TV documentary about the early part of Dylan's career, up to the end of his 1966 European tour. It was touted on BBC Radio 4's Front Row arts review programme as the best rockumentary of all time; but I'd still give that laurel to Festival Express (to which there is a connection with this film because members of Dylan's band, including bass player Rick Danko, went on to form The Band). I'm not a Dylan nut, so most of it was news to me and I can't judge how much of it was revelatory, or how much of the footage unseen (and I'm unwilling to sift through the publicity bullshit to find out what they want us to believe). I'm aware of the whole mythology surrounding him as the "voice of a generation", singing protest songs and tapping into America's collective unconscious, but Scorsese and Dylan seemed to confound that. In the recent interviews recorded for the programme, Dylan denies that his songs in 1963 were topical and still seems baffled by his popularity. He certainly played hard to get, shunning Joan Baez, who was much more active politically. Dylan insists that he didn't take sides, that he wasn't interested in politics; but he didn't help himself by making albums with titles like "The Times They Are A-Changin' ", playing at the 1963 March on Washington after Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech, or by standing next to big protest posters. There is some hilarious archive footage from press conferences in which he responds drily to quotidian questions about his cult status.

On a first viewing, I'm not sure the intercutting of live footage from the 1966 UK concerts was entirely successful; it jarred somewhat with the exposition of his early career; so we are told on the voice-over that he was a revolutionary spokesman for the civil rights movement and yet see pictures of him beeing booed by audiences wanting to see a folk singer, not a rock band. I have a feeling, though, that this juxtaposition is entirely deliberate, emphasizing the inconsistency and unconformity of his career, his stollid selfishness, refusing to bow to his audience's demands, developing musically to where he wanted to go, not to where they wanted him to stay, never buying into the commercial media circus, although it is a little strange that he agreed to do these press conferences when he was so unwilling to cooperate with what they wanted to write about him. A lot of shoddy, lazy journalism, asking him dumb, ignorant questions. Never ask an artist to explain or account for his work; it's an insult and he won't be able to do it anyway. Let it speak for itself.

Dylan comes across, especially in his early New York City days, as being cast in the mould of Holden Caulfield (from J. D. Salinger's novel The Catcher in the Rye, 1951): his rebellious nature, his naivety, his affected scruffiness. Even as an old man of sixty-odd he looks young, young in the eyes, not quite understanding everything that's going on, not willing to understand it; and yet comprehending it almost by intuition on an entirely different level. There's still something innocent about him, and yet he seems to be holding back his intelligence. Why does he play his songs the way people don't want to hear them?

Many of the old folk musicians who function as the talking heads overdo the whole Dylan mystique, exaggerating how great he was, what a buzz the movement was - the usual rock nostalgia crap - bigging themselves up no end. I suppose that's as much the filmmakers' fault for asking the leading questions that would let them say that sort of thing. I'm glad I taped this thing because it's worth at least another viewing. I see they're releasing it on DVD already. It was made for TV as an Arena documentary in the UK in collaboration with PBS in America and a whole bunch of other production companies. A mighty fine film, but one that is slightly misty-eyed; a sweet relish nevertheless.

Nugget: it strikes me that a lot of musicians are total geeks, outsiders, the sort of kids who would have been uncool at school. So, forty years later, when they get to look back on it all and chew the fat, it's a big fuckoff hamshank of a burger they're eating into.

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