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The two-part film includes never-seen performance footage and interviews with artists and musicians whose lives intertwined with Dylans during that time. For the first time on camera, Dylan talks openly and extensively about this critical period in his career.
It’s virtually impossible to approach No Direction Home without a cluster of fixed ideas. Who doesn’t have their own private Dylan? The true excellence of Martin Scorsese’s achievement lies in how his documentary shakes us free of our comfortable assumptions. In the process, it plays out on several levels at once, each taking shape as an unfailingly fascinating narrative. There is, of course, the central story of an individual genius staking out his artistic identity. But along with this Bildungsroman come other threads and contexts: most notably, the role of popular culture in postwar America, art’s self-reliance versus its social responsibilities, and fans’ complicity with the publicity machine in sustaining myths. All of these threads reinforce each other, together weaving the film’s intricate texture.
Scorsese’s 200-plus-minute focus on Dylan’s earliest years allows for a portrayal of unprecedented depth, with multiple angles: a rich composite photo is the result. The main narrative has an epic quality: it moves from Dylan growing up in cold-war Minnesota through Greenwich Village coffeehouses and the Newport Folk Festival, climaxing in the controversial 1966 U.K. tour that crowned a period of unbridled and explosive creativity. In his transition from Robert Allen Zimmerman to Bob Dylan, we observe him concocting his impossible-to-describe, unique combination of the topical with the archaic, like an ancient oracle. Scorsese was able to access previously unseen footage from the Dylan archives, including performances, press conferences, and recording sessions. He also uses interviews with Dylan’s friends, ex-friends, and fellow artists, and, intriguingly, with the notoriously reclusive Dylan himself (who looks back to provide glosses on the early years), fusing what could have turned into a tiresome series of digressions and tangents into a powerful whole as enlightening, eccentric, contradictory, and ultimately irreducible as its subject.
Some of the deeply personal bits remain unrevealed, but Dylan’s preternatural self-assurance acquires a slightly self-deprecating, even comic edge via some of his reflective comments. Alongside the arrogance, we see touching moments of the young artist’s reverence for Woody Guthrie and Johnny Cash. Joan Baez, in a poignant confessional mood, comes off well, and the late Allen Ginsberg is so seraphically charming he almost steals the show a few times. A crucial throughline is Dylan’s hunger for recognition and ability to shape perceptions so that would be singled out as not just another dime-a-dozen folk singer. It’s illuminating–particularly for those familiar with the artist’s latter-day aloofness on stage–to see his reactions to audience booing in the wake of his “betrayal” in this fuller context. No Direction Home also makes clear–in a way that wasn’t possible in D.A. Pennebaker’s iconic Don’t Look Back–how Dylan’s ability to manipulate his persona always, at its core, protects the urge for expression: Dylan’s ultimate mandate, as an artist, is never to be pinned down. As Scorsese masterfully shows, the myth around Dylan only grows bigger the more we discover about him. –Thomas May
DVD features: This two-disc set of Scorsese’s full two-part documentary includes treats such as Dylan working on a song at his hotel during the UK tour as well as performing several songs as in concert or on TV.
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