Who'd have guessed that Bob Dylan enjoys looking back?
Yet there he is, at the center of the 31/2-hour, Martin Scorsese-directed "No Direction Home: Bob Dylan," not just as its subject and soundtrack source but, shockingly, as the essential narrator of his own story. That's because the normally press-averse Dylan sat down for 10 hours of interviews with his manager and archivist, Jeff Rosen, and riffled through his back pages in a surprisingly engaging and accessible manner. This is definitely not the obscure, obtuse or obfuscating Dylan who lends himself to parody, but the lucid memoirist of 2004's "Chronicles Volume 1" (out this week in paperback).
"No Direction Home" (whose DVD release via Paramount precedes its airing next week on PBS' "American Masters" series) is a first volume of sorts, covering the first 25 years of Dylan's journey as he goes from being a complete unknown in Hibbing, Minn., to becoming (despite how much he hates it) the voice of his generation and the most profoundly influential songwriter in rock history.
The Scorsese film draws from the Rosen interview and others Rosen conducted with two dozen key Dylan contemporaries and associates, as well as from the extensive and heretofore under-mined Bob Dylan Archive, including outtakes from D.A. Pennebaker's classic "Don't Look Back" documentary and a never-released sequel.
Scorsese was handed a lot of raw material (he did no new interviews), and he's managed to impose coherence through superb editing. And he has added context through newsreel footage that makes "No Direction Home" as much a chronicle of the culturally and politically chaotic '60s as it is a portrait of the artist as a young man.
Better yet, Scorsese does it in a manner that should make believers of those who came to Dylan late and never understood just how revolutionary he was, while also pleasing longtime believers with loads of rare material that has previously circulated only among dedicated Dylan bootleggers and collectors.
"No Direction Home" opens with Dylan's recollections about growing up in Hibbing and his brief stopover in Minneapolis at the University of Minnesota, and his warm reflections on the early rock 'n' rollers and country, blues and pop singers who fueled his imagination, as well as the folk music that increasingly absorbed him -- Dylan says "folk delivered in one song how I felt about life."
But the film's main narrative arc is 1961 to 1966, certainly the richest and most rewarding part of Dylan's ongoing career, as well as the most documented on film, via television performances, press conferences, civil rights rallies, Newport Folk Festivals (from 1963 to 1965) and concert tours. After the 1966 motorcycle accident that took him off the road for eight years, Dylan would never again be as accessible or responsive to the media.
In 1961, Dylan arrived in New York to seek out his greatest inspiration, the ailing Woody Guthrie ("you could listen to his songs and actually learn how to live"), and to immerse himself in a Greenwich Village folk scene that he quickly galvanized through the richness and substance of his original songwriting. Beat poet Allen Ginsberg recalls weeping the first time he heard the apocalyptic imagery and poetic urgency of "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," realizing that a torch had been passed to a new generation.
Five years later, Dylan's controversial and aptly titled "electric" transformation changed rock as much as his earlier work changed folk. The process actually begins a year earlier at the Newport Folk Festival, when Dylan plugged in with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band on a supercharged "Maggie's Farm," electrifying the music and shocking the folkie faithful. He did it again in his 1966 tour of England with what later became the Band. Along with the fractious Newport appearance, footage from that contentious tour is seen here for the first time, including the famous anonymous "Judas!" shout -- and Dylan's furious response via a supercharged "Like a Rolling Stone." A whole section dissects that groundbreaking song, which signaled a seismic shift in popular music.
"No Direction Home" is fully loaded with music and insights: DVD extras include seven full performances from '60s television shows and concerts, several covers by interview subjects and a few other rarities.