Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Dec 19, 2007 8:59 am 
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Indispensable Bob Dylan

The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival (2007) is a compilation for TV from Murray Lerner's extensive filming at Newport in the early Sixties, It was a sidebar at the 2007 New York Film Festival and is being shown in some theaters; it's already available on DVD.

The more you look back at the Bob Dylan of 1963, 1964, and 1965, the more clear it is that he was a wunderkind, a singer-songwriter at 23, 24, and 25 of genius proportions. The songs just poured out of him with breathtaking speed, and more often than not they were brilliant and powerful. You don't get to see that very often in a lifetime, or in an age. He also revealed ever-increasing authority as a performer capable of delivering his work better than anybody else, though others, including Joan Baez and Johnny Cash in these films, were going to pay homage by delivering their own versions.

This seems to be Dylan time. Again and again recently there is an important new look at the man. No look is more concentrated and unadulterated than the one Lerner provides us with here. No narration or analysis gets in the way. It's just Dylan on stage.

The final moment is a key one in modern American pop music history (one described and shown in Scorsese's terrific documentary from 2005, No Direction Home): the historic booed electric band performance. When Dylan sings "Maggie's Farm," he's transforming his protest songs about worker independence into a declaration of his own freedom from the folkie tradition:

I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more.
No, I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more.
Well, I try my best
To be just like I am,
But everybody wants you
To be just like them.
They sing while you slave and I just get bored.
I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more.

He also performs with the electric rock band "Like a Rolling Stone," another declaration of being free-standing and independent, burning his bridges:

How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

They boo him but they applaud him too. Dylan was already a rock star --because the audience was beginning to treat him like one--when he was performing in skinny jeans and a plain short-sleeved shirt with hair combed to one side in 1963, as this film begins, with "Mr. Tambourine Man" and Pete Seeger standing admiring in the background. But this was just one step on the way. Dylan was into style, he liked leather, and he loved performing. It was essential that he would have a band, a rock band (this is before The Band, with Robbie Robertson, however). In 1965 after the booing that follows the electric band performance, they still want him back, and he comes out with an acoustic guitar and asks for anybody to throw up "E" harmonicas on the stage. He grabs one off the floor, fits it in the holder, and performs "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Baby Blue." This moment says that he hasn't forgotten the past. Though he speaks ironically in the car speeding away, fitting on the dark glasses, when he says of the hordes beating on the back "those are my friends," he nonetheless recognizes with that ironic remark the power the public has and the responsibility he is going to have to it.

To see this film after recently watching Todd Haynes' I'm Not There is particularly cool, because all the big transitions and facets in it are jammed together in far more subtle and yet concentrated form here. Haynes' movie is like a training film, going through the motions slowly and emphatically so we can distinguish them and get them straight. Here in the three years of the Newport Festival all the Dylans are there but you have to watch closely. They're there. There are also Johnney and Joanie. And Joanie coming up to sing with Bobbie more than once. Bobbie and Joanie don't really sing together very well, though--they seem at odds with each other--it's an indication of their relationship, affectionate but uneasy., eventually to be a casualty of Dylan's mercurial stylistic evolutions.

Joanie was in love with Bobbie and you can see why. He has the special sex appeal of intelligence, talent, and edge, and those beautiful deer eyes, those sharp features--the whole iconic face but in its freshest, most cherubic form. It's hard not to love it. I'm in love with him myself, as he was then. He was everything I ever wanted to be: creative, cool, lovable, ruthlessly independent, sexy, brilliant, and inapproachable but appealing. He had it all, and this film shows that.

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