Movie Review
No Direction Home
2005
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger
A


make no mistake: No Direction Home, the sprawling, deeply felt, and revelatory new documentary released on DVD this month along with a two-part airing on PBS and the BBC, is a Martin Scorsese film.

From his much-imitated, bawdy use of the Rolling Stones’s “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” in Mean Streets, to his Band swan song The Last Waltz, few directors have as close and as fertile a relationship with music as Scorsese. (More recently, consider the masterful way in which Van Morrison’s “T.B. Sheets” gasps and splutters its way through 1999’s Bringing Out the Dead, like some moribund CB radio.) In fact, of his passions, Scorsese has often listed cinema as being followed closely by music, an interest which for him amounts to standing back in a state of awed appreciation.

And it is most certainly a sense of awe that Scorsese feels for Bob Dylan, the sole subject of his new film, which traces the poet and singer’s career from his early days as a semi-rebellious (though mostly just freezing) teenager in Hibbing, Minnesota, to his 1966 motorcycle accident. Functioning as a companion to the formidable My Voyage to Italy, Scorsese’s 1999 documentary about Italian cinema, No Direction Home is a similarly earnest tribute to a kind of creativity with which the director feels a deep kinship.

More to the point, however, is that an artist like Scorsese understands Dylan’s ability to channel and re-code all of his influences into a distinct, if eclectic, body of work. “He was like a sponge,” one acquaintance remarks of Dylan’s ability to pick up new techniques, new songs, and even new accents in a matter of weeks. With that in mind, it isn’t hard to picture a young Scorsese absorbing everything he can from, say, Roberto Rossellini with the same kind of frenetic enthusiasm.

Appropriately, then, like his autobiography Chronicles: Volume 1 did last year, the film charts Dylan’s path largely through his myriad influences, with such performers as Odetta, John Jacob Niles, Pete Seeger, and the revered Woody Guthrie providing the footing for much of the documentary’s early scenes. Moving back and forth from Dylan’s ballyhooed “goes electric” tour of 1966 (and using footage from an unreleased documentary), Scorsese has the good sense not to unleash an army of “experts” from Rolling Stone magazine to explain the bombshell shift in styles, relying instead upon clips from betrayed concertgoers to convey the magnitude of the transition.

And despite the film’s ubiquitous marketing campaign, which purports to add the final piece to the Dylan puzzle, the 64 year-old remains somewhat aloof in the wryly evasive way that we’ve come to expect. Do not, in other words, expect the impossibly intimate quality of Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb (still, for my money, the best documentary yet made about any artist), which pinned down the intricate cluster of familial neuroses and abuses that went into R. Crumb’s development as a cartoonist. In contrast, Dylan’s conception of his own artistic growth almost refuses a connection to his parents, upbringing, and early home life, inasmuch as they were normal enough to immediately forget (or, perhaps, consciously reject) once he left Hibbing for Minneapolis in 1959.

There are, however, some startlingly personal moments, such as the film’s brief treatment of the love affair between Dylan and Joan Baez. (“You can’t be wise and in love at the same time,” he explains of their break-up.) For her part, Baez remains a beautiful, spry vocalist (who can also, as it turns out, do a spot-on Dylan impression). And in some ways, the film’s most genuinely moving moments come from the tributes by these other, gently greying artists. (The DVD includes some heartfelt covers of, among others, “Girl from the North Country” performed by several of the film’s interviewees.)

The film also lays bare the ruthless ways in which the press went about trying to pigeonhole and classify Dylan during this stage in his career—one photographer demandingly shouts “suck on your glasses” during a photo session—and the result offers us a compelling look at an artist at the end of his rope.

And in spite of the more or less unremarkable presentation (this documentary, after all, belongs to the same PBS “American Masters” series that brought us Bob Newhart: Unbuttoned), there are indeed hints of Scorsese’s signature flourishes: his brief, Hitchcockian cameo appearance (reading Dylan’s flustered but moving acceptance speech of the Tom Paine Award); violence in the streets (Jack Ruby’s killing of Lee Harvey Oswald is set to “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” with a stylish gap in the track long enough for a bullet to blow a hole through Oswald's stomach); and, not surprisingly, an homage to Scorsese’s beloved New York City, where Dylan’s (and the film’s) momentum begins to pick up in the folk scene of the early- to mid-sixties.

In all, the documentary is worth watching simply to see Dylan at work: from his part in opening for Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington, to his performance of “Like a Rolling Stone” with astonishing ferocity at the famed “Judas!” show. It’s also nice to know that both Dylan and Scorsese will be around for at least a few more years—until, that is, their work is gobbled up by the next young mastermind.


By: Bob Kotyk
Published on: 2005-09-28
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