Thursday, September 29, 2005

Dylan unleashed... yet again

You'd think that since it had already been out on DVD, PBS' airing for Dylan doc No Direction Home wouldn't be much of an event but it was. Spread over two night, they made it part of their American Masters series and will no doubt rehaul it (or parts of it) out for their next pledge drive, as they should. Since the film industry is already talking about simultaneous releases for DVD's and theatrical premieres, it only makes sense that TV also give viewers multiple options.

Even though Martin Scorsese is credited as director here, it bears repeating that the project goes back about a decade. MS was brought in about three years ago to "shape" the material that the Dylan crew had amassed. Other than the interviews, what's really extraordinary is the mid 60's concert footage. Murray Lerner's Newport Festival films are wonderful pieces of history, especially as we can now see and hear the infamous '65 show and yes, there's boo-ing out there in the audience. Ditto for D.A. Pennebaker's seldom seen footage of the UK '66 tour from Eat The Document (which deserves a full release). There, the antagonism is even more upfront and louder- to drive home the point, we get subtitles of the jeering and some angry interviews with fans who heap scorn on their former hero. Even more remarkable, we see the whole "Judas" exchange where Dylan replies by calling back "I don't believe you! You're a liar!" and then instructing his boys to "Play it fuckin' loud!" as the perfect response. Backstage at these shows, a weary Dylan can only joke about these incidents.

You'd have to fast forward about ten years in the same places in the UK to see the same kind of hostility, at punk shows to be exact. Though there were detractors for sure, the fans themselves saw fit to also heap scornful responses to the people on stage, but for different reasons. As for Dylan, the eight years he took off after that tour served him well. Though he popped up now and then during his retirement (Isle of Wight, Guthrie Memorial), he didn't really do shows in earnest until 1974. By then, the whole issue of him selling out was played out not just because he'd already done several rock albums by then but also the music world had changed considerably.

The infamous press conferences he gave around '65 and '66 were yet another antagonism forum for him but obviously in a different context. Here he was facing a smaller crowd of people but interacting with them one-on-one. Though the journos are obviously less hostile than some of the crowds, the amount of inane questions they throw at him are staggering. Reflecting on it later, Dylan is still baffled about how he could have properly responded to questions like "How many protest singers there are?" In their defense though, some of the writers are earnest and trying to ask reasonable questions but Dylan is so bemused by what he sees as a circus that it's doubtful that ANY question could have possibly gotten a straight-forward answer. He decided to play the press corps instead of the aw-shucks modesty angle (i.e. Elvis). If anything, it sounded kind of like the flip responses that the Beatles gave when they invaded the U.S. but D's much more angry and condescending.

This kind of battling with the press and so-called fans were having a toll on him- he later admits that he needed a break. His '66 motorcycle accident provided the ideal excuse for it. As you hear in assorted biographies, manager Albert Goldman (who he likens to Colonel Parker) had him over-booked for more tours and a book deal at the time (which eventually became Tarantula).

What's also interesting about the film is what we don't see. While Dylan himself sat for some ten hours (!) of interviews and was remarkably frank and up front in his answers, the rest of the assembled subjects are his fellow travelers, contemporaries, friends, lovers, etc.. No journos, historians or even rock musicians that were outside his circle to give some perspective. Most likely, Scorsese, Jeff Rosen (from Dylan's camp) and others thought that those people already had enough of their say so that we should hear from those at the eye of the storm. Obviously, death robbed us of comments from Tom Wilson, Albert Grossman (could you even imagine what he'd say?) and others, we don't hear from anyone from the Band though Al Kooper and '66 tour drummer Mickey Jones are accounted for in the film: Richard Manuel was sadly long gone but there was still plenty of time to speak to Rick Danko; Garth Hudson, Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson are still around too. Since the film's been brewing for a while, interviews with Allen Ginsberg and Dave Von Ronk were done before they died. Another puzzling omission is Blonde on Blonde. It's not just one of Dylan's most lauded records, it's a flippin' rock milestone. Unless I blinked, I don't remember a word about it, even though producer Bob Johnston was happy to talk about Highway 61 Revisited.

Admittedly, I don't have a copy of the DVD but I'm going to guess that the Charlie Rose interview with Scorsese that was aired after the PBS showing isn't included there. That's a shame because a lot more is revealed there. In addition to his comments about how he got involved in the film late in the game, Scorsese reminds us that we'd only seen a few years (the retirement provided a perfect end point) of a musical career that's lasted almost forty years after the film ends and is still going. He briefly ticks off what happened to Dylan since then and shows a particular interest towards his religious phase. By now, most people (I'm guessing even many fans) laugh off this part of Dylan's career as an unfortunate diversion but for someone like Scorsese who obviously takes the subject very seriously in his work, this ain't no joke: if they do decide to keep covering D's career, Scorsese would definitely be the right man to oversee a doc on this part of his career.

So, having a high-powered director like Scorsese behind this project means that this is the last word on Dylan's early years, right? Obviously, it ain't. Even with his recent autobiography, he's the shadowy type who even when he appears forthright still leaves as many questions in his wake as he answer others: "Andy Warhol meets Pete Seeger," as Bono called him. Even in the brief years chronicled in the film, we see him rapidly evolve year to year- this only continued or accelerated afterwards. We'll still be slobbering over him years from now and he'll probably still be hitting on road on what's now appropriately called his Endless Tour, still leaving crumbs for us to chew over. And why is he opening up with this film and his book after years of enigmatic behavior? That's yet another mystery for us to ponder about him.


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