Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jan 16, 2006 8:43 pm 
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Portrait of a young genius in the throes of self-creation

This documentary is about a young man from nowhere who knew nothing and was nobody who became the poet of his generation and the spokesman of the rebellious American spirit of the Sixties, the great moment of ferment and excitement and freedom that split apart the twentieth century. Is that important? The question isn't worth asking. One quickly uses up superlatives describing such a film, and its remarkable subject.

What No Direction Home shows us is Robert, Bobby, Zimmerman gradually but visibly turning into Bob Dylan, finding himself, creating himself, becoming himself, finding a platform to stand on and a voice to speak with and an identity to present that was an amalgam of Blues and Country and Protest and Woody Guthrie -- whose avatar and descendant he became -- a young man who looked like a wiry boy (and not a little like Rimbaud) who enrolled in college but didn't attend, read Verlaine and Rimbaud and Baudelaire in apartments and houses where he crashed, stole rare recordings, and then sang and wrote like crazy and began to emerge from the crowd of folksingers and be noticed -- notably by one of twentieth century America's great discoverers of musical talent, John Hammond.

The first album was a bunch of mistakes. He immediately regretted it. He should have used nothing but his own stuff.

But listen to his second album and you still see today what a genius this 20-year-old from Hibbing MN had.

The purity and directness of that voice. The purity of the vision. The verbal imagination. The originality. The irresistible charm even as one was being shocked and shaken. The gifts that this young man had were and are simply and literally stunning. You watch the contemporary audiences and the contemporary press and you think: These people were at the same time? On the same planet? Dylan was a meteor. I think Ginzberg says he had become a shaft of light. Scorsese captures this.

The genius of the documentary is that its art is seamless. Much of it is made up of existing footage, smoothly intercut with commentary by the Dylan of today. This is unobtrusive, and the older Dylan is always apt, just, and wise in his remarks. As you're watching the cocky, angry, sometimes frustrated young man, you're struck by how mellow the current Dylan is, and yet how true he is now to who he was then. Dylan has gone through as many stages and permutations as Miles Davis or Picasso. It's sometimes the mark of a great talent; it's true of Coltrane, whose fans also turned against him as Dylan's did when he went electric. But these are just part of staying fresh and moving forward. They don't mean he rejects or is embarrassed by his earlier self, whom he seems to still be in close touch with today, which makes his commentary the more relevant and enlightening.

Obviously, most of the footage is from elsewhere. Scorsese didn't film the young Bob D. Pennebaker and others did. For this viewer however there seemed to be plenty of new stuff to see, and it is well edited. The good thing about No Direction Home is that the craft is invisible. The performance cuts are fairly well sustained, and the face of Dylan today as commentator comes in unobtrusively.

Hard to describe the excitement, the joy, for an American of roughly the same generation to watch this story unfold. It all came easy then, Dylan says, the verses. It flowed out of him, Joan Baez says. Ah, youth! Ah, genius! You don’t have them often and no one has them long. We’re damned lucky that we still have Dylan today and he’s there to talk sense to us.

The film gives a good depiction of the Baez/Dylan relationship of those days, which went sour on the UK tour; excellent interview with Baez to express her side of things. Again, the mature artist is totally in touch with her young self, though she sees that her tagging along on the UK tour was a painful mistake.

A good depiction also of where Dylan fits -- and refuses to fit -- not only into the molds for him the public and the press created, but into the politics of the time.

The only objection I can see is the way the early electronic concerts are intercut early, without explanation, as a harbinger obviously of how the young folkie public was going to turn against Dylan and boo him and call him "Traitor!" These are popped in initially without explanation, in what is otherwise a logical and chronological presentation. Perhaps on repeated viewings this will make sense; perhaps not. This is the only flaw.

But the electronic music, and the Band as they became who toured with him when he made that change, seems completely inevitable. The folk guitar voice had had its moment. It was time to move on. The only "betrayal" was of cliché and received opinions, which were never what Bob Dylan was about. Baez is eloquent about how Dylan's daily need to change, never to do a song the same way, is a mark of his gifts but made him hell to tour with.

The other talking heads are unusually eloquent, apt, and well chosen.

Even if you don't really care for the music or wouldn't wait in line for a ticket for Metallica or the Red Hot Chili Peppers, etc., music films about them or other pop groups are quite often fun to watch. When it's a significant popular artist like Dylan and the filmmaker is someone of the caliber of Martin Scorsese, it may be considered required viewing.

Seen on the dvd's bought and watched in NYC on New Year's Eve, 2005 in the Village where Bob Dylan first became Bob Dylan.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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