"No Direction Home" represents a great musical-cinematic summit, as no less than the great Martin Scorsese directs -- with superb control and judgment -- what surely qualifies as the definitive documentary about Bob Dylan. "No Direction Home" will be broadcast in two parts tonight and tomorrow night on PBS's "American Masters" series, and in the bargain viewers get two masters -- one a hugely influential singer and songwriter with a canny, thoroughly American knack for self-invention and the other a filmmaker with a thumb (to recycle an encomium Dylan has dodged throughout his career) firmly on the pulse of his generation.
It's a happy collaboration. "No Direction Home" offers a lively, absorbing, often deeply moving account of how Robert Zimmerman from the small mining town of Hibbing, Minn., became -- through talent, luck and calculating ambition -- the musician, icon and enigma we know as Bob Dylan. Wisely, Scorsese limits his scope to the early years, from Dylan's birth in 1941 to 1966, when he outraged fans and folk purists by going electric. The result isn't a comprehensive compendium of factoids or deep dish -- there's precious little personal information related in the 207-minute running time -- but instead a tightly focused portrait of a young artist searching for his musical and professional identity and whose search happened to bring him to the very center of the American political and cultural zeitgeist.
Most of the facts of Zimmerman's journey to Dylan are well known by now, thanks to endless hagiographic deconstructions of his life and to his own well-regarded autobiography, which came out last year. So Scorsese -- who long ago earned his rock-doc bona fides with "The Last Waltz," about the Band -- wisely structures "No Direction Home" around a central tension, in this case the startlingly hostile reception Dylan received when he toured with the Band (then called the Hawks) in Britain in 1966. When those concerts were released in 1998 as part of Dylan's ongoing "Bootleg" recording series, fans heard the famous "Judas!" episode, when a fan yelled the epithet at Dylan and the appalled singer responded with, "I don't believe you!" then ripped into a blistering version of "Like a Rolling Stone."
That song, with fans booing all the way through, opens "No Direction Home," and Scorsese returns to those contentious concerts throughout the film. They not only provide much-needed narrative tension but the ideal leitmotif for an artist who for so long has engaged in an ambivalent gavotte with his fans, as interested in courting them as he is in confounding them. "No Direction Home" gets to the heart of that ambivalence, with Dylan -- a famous trickster who began to mythologize his past almost as soon as he got to Greenwich Village in 1961 -- at least appearing to provide some straight answers to what has driven him all these years. Scorsese also interviews Dylan's longtime friends, collaborators and mentors, among them Dave Van Ronk, Liam Clancy, Maria Muldaur and Joan Baez, who recounts her personal and professional power struggles with Dylan with tart, candid affection. (One question: Where's Robbie Robertson?)
Dylan has been the subject of documentaries before, most famously in D.A. Pennebaker's 1967 "Don't Look Back." Scorsese avails himself of clips from that film, as well as Pennebaker's rarely seen "Eat the Document" and Murray Lerner's "Festival," about the Newport Folk Festival (there's footage of Dylan's notorious first electric set at the 1965 festival, but none of the legendary and probably apocryphal fistfight between folklorist Alan Lomax and Dylan manager Albert Grossman). Perhaps only a director of Scorsese's caliber could have produced not just a fascinating portrait of Dylan's meteoric rise but a vivid social history and an obliquely witty examination of the packaging and marketing of the folk craze in the 1960s (some scenes seem plucked directly from Christopher Guest's satire "A Mighty Wind"). It should be noted that the director, with editor David Tedeschi, accomplishes all of this without the crutch of narration; the only time you hear a voice-over is when Scorsese reads a speech that Dylan wrote but never delivered when he received an award from the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee in 1963.
But the most valuable material, by far, is that of Dylan's less publicized influences -- not only Woody Guthrie but Odetta, Leadbelly, Webb Pierce and John Jacob Niles -- as well as early scenes, such as a 1963 performance of "Man of Constant Sorrow," in which an impossibly green kid from Hibbing seems literally to be finding his voice and the persona that would undergo so many transformations in successive years. Then there are the occasional grace notes, such as a goosebump-inducing duet with Johnny Cash on "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry."
Throughout "No Direction Home," Dylan emerges as a cultural magpie -- he calls himself "a musical expeditionary" -- who is constantly reaching back into the canon even while he reinvents it, and his own songs, again and again. During one of several painful encounters with a clueless 1960s press corps, Dylan -- by then a reluctant mascot for the antiwar and civil rights movements -- is asked whether he considers himself the voice of his generation. "I think of myself as a song-and-dance man," he says simply. Gracefully interweaving Dylan's artistry and ambition, "No Direction Home" puts him in his rightful place, not only alongside America's greatest poets and visionaries but also its showmen; he's an heir to Guthrie and Jack Kerouac, it's true, but there's a playful tip of the hat as well to such archetypal entertainers as Stephen Foster, George M. Cohan and P.T. Barnum.
"No Direction Home" ends on an electrifying note, literally and figuratively, as viewers see for the first time on-screen the famous Judas performance; the moment -- defiant, thrilling and deeply emotional -- is a triumphant conclusion to a story that, gratifyingly, hasn't ended. In a postscript, Scorsese informs viewers that after his motorcycle accident in the summer of 1966, Dylan stopped touring for eight years. What the filmmaker might have added is that then, he never stopped.
No Direction Home airs at 9 p.m. on Channel 26 (90 minutes tonight; two hours tomorrow night) and on Maryland Public Television (two hours each night).