Last night finished watching Martin Scorsese’s two-part documentary on the early part of Bob Dylan’s career, No Direction Home — fascinating and beautiful. The film spent a lot of energy not just on concert footage and interviews, but on context — the musical and social environment from which he shot like a weed into mesmerizing strangeness.
Scorsese put a lot of weight on Dylan’s slippery nature, his refusal to be pinned down or labeled. The establishment media was absolutely fixated on making him “The spokesman of a generation,” “The father of protest music,” though relatively little of his output was actually political or topical except in the most obtuse way, and he consistently confounded reporters’ attempts to get him to make political statements, or to actually speak for his generation. Priceless footage of a Swedish photojournalist asking him to “Suck on the arm of his glasses” — wanted to stage Dylan looking thoughtful or something. Dylan walked up to the photog and held his specs up to the guy’s mouth. “You suck on them.” A student journalist looking ridiculous as he demands to know the symbolism of the barely visible motorcycle on Dylan’s t-shirt on the cover of “Highway 61 Revisited,” Dylan looking incredulous that people were so desperate to find hidden meaning in his every move. “Umm, I was just wearing that shirt that day, I really don’t remember.”
Much of the footage is chilling in its beauty, Dylan so in the moment, so completely absorbed by the muse. Allen Ginsberg: “He had become identical with his breath.” Lots of interview footage with Joan Baez on their difficult relationship, and her frustration that Dylan wouldn’t throw his weight behind the protest movement, as she had assumed they would do together. “He was the most complex person I’ve ever met.”
Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn
Suicide remarks are torn
From the fool’s gold mouthpiece
The hollow horn plays wasted words
Proves to warn
That he not busy being born
Is busy dying.
– It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)
Focus on Dylan’s transition from folk to rock, and how his freewheeling mixture of the genres frustrated folk purists. Crowds booing, hollering “Traitor!” Pete Seeger admits wanting to take an axe to the power cords at one electric performance, Dylan today talking about how painful it was to learn that one of his own heroes was rejecting that music so completely. But truthfully, some of the electric performances are painful to watch in contrast with the solo work, even as they’re tremendous in their own right.
The doc stops abruptly in 1966 with Dylan’s motorcycle accident, and you’re left hungry for another four (or more!) hours covering the years that have gone between.