'No Direction Home: Bob Dylan," a three-and-half-hour jewel in PBS's ongoing "American Masters" series, is spectacular oral history, a beautifully constructed audio-visual sequel to Dylan's acclaimed 2004 memoir, "Chronicles: Volume One." It's channeled through director Martin Scorsese, chock-full of rare film and recordings, as well as something even rarer: an extended interview with the famously private artist who's made a career of being "masked and anonymous."
In "No Direction Home," Dylan says he learned early on "not to give away too easily anything that was dear to me," and for decades that included his memories. He didn't look back until "Chronicles," which revealed a rich, literary, almost Proustian willingness to celebrate influences and inspirations and to revisit the past, or at least certain parts of it, though never the personal.
Likewise, the film is not the definitive career portrait some might want or expect. It focuses on Dylan roughly from 1961, when he first arrived in New York and immersed himself in the Greenwich Village folk scene, to 1966. That year, after a tumultuous tour of England during which angry folk purists greeted his decision to go electric with shouts of "Judas" and "traitor," Dylan was in a near-fatal motorcycle accident near his home in Woodstock, N.Y. After that he became a recluse for close to a decade.
But in the mid-'60s, Dylan changed popular music, and popular culture, and Scorsese shows us how.
"No Direction Home" marks a belated reunion for Dylan and Scorsese, who worked together in 1978 as part of "The Last Waltz," a documentary chronicling the final performance of Dylan's former backup band, the Band.
But they didn't actually come together for "No Direction Home," whose roots date back a decade to a desire by some in Dylan's camp to put together a documentary from the wealth of rare and unseen film, tape, stills and recordings in the Bob Dylan Archives. Five years ago, Dylan manager and archivist Jeff Rosen conducted and personally filmed 10 hours of interviews; he also filmed candid and revealing interviews with such Dylan associates as Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Liam Clancy, Paul Nelson, Mavis Staples, Al Kooper and former girlfriend and "Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" cover girl Suze Rotolo. Some of the interviewees have since died, including poet Allen Ginsberg and Greenwich Village folk icon Dave Van Ronk.
All that material proved unwieldy to folks who are not natural filmmakers (see, or don't see, Dylan's "Renaldo and Clara" or "Masked and Anonymous"), and Scorsese was drafted in 2001, though other commitments occupied him until late 2003. Scorsese did no new interviews but worked with the considerable material already at hand. The filmmaker did not meet the singer during the making of "No Direction Home," preferring to keep a distance from Dylan. But the singer gave Scorsese free rein to shape the story and complete control over the final cut.
What Scorsese brought was crucial: much-needed cohesion, an arching narrative structure, and an ability to contextualize Dylan's achievements against epiphanous moments from the times he inhabited, from 1950s Cold War paranoia and the 1960s Civil Rights movement to a cultural revolution in which Dylan found himself at the center. Scorsese illuminates just how evolutionary and revolutionary Dylan's art was, putting it into musical and historical context without becoming overbearing. He brilliantly charts Dylan's restless mutation from Woody Guthrie acolyte to folk icon, from poetic singer-songwriter to raucous rocker.
In a way, the film's leitmotif is "Like a Rolling Stone," heard in several incarnations, its recording recounted by key players. They recall encountering the lyrically dense, rhythmically charged, unprecedented-at-six-minutes single as it was being recorded for "Highway 61 Revisited." Even Dylan admits in the documentary, "I'd never heard a song like that before."
But even though it had topped the American charts the year before, in England it represented the transformed Dylan rejected by his original fans.
"No Direction Home" makes available for the first time -- in greatly enhanced form -- the legendary May 1966 encounter at Manchester's Free Trade Hall, when Dylan, who'd just played an acoustic opening set, was heckled after plugging in his electric guitar. His response was to kick off a blistering performance of "Like a Rolling Stone," instructing the band to "play it [expletive] loud!" They did.
The film is deftly framed by visceral flashbacks to the 1966 tour, outtakes from D.A. Pennebaker's classic 1967 documentary "Don't Look Back" (filmed during Dylan's 1965 English tour) and footage from "Eat the Document." The latter was a sequel shot by Pennebaker but edited by Dylan; it was originally commissioned by ABC, which turned it down as being incomprehensible. Dylan includes some odd raps and rants, and seeing them now, you have to agree with ABC. A second edit was shown once on a New York station before the film was sent to the basement.
The Dylan vaults also produced rare footage and outtakes from Murray Lerner's "Festival," which documented Dylan's performances at the Newport Folk Festivals from 1963 to 1965 and the extreme reactions embodied therein.
In 1963, Dylan's festival-closing performance of his civil rights anthem "Blowin' in the Wind" made it seem, according to Van Ronk, that "if there is an American collective unconscious . . . Bobby had somehow tapped into that." But by 1965, it's derision being heaped on Dylan after he appears, playing electric guitar with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, opening with a raucous performance of "Maggie's Farm" that clearly alienates the folkie faithful. Dragged out for a solo acoustic encore, Dylan pithily chooses "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," with its harsh admonition to "strike another match, go start anew."
Because it's told in Dylan's voice -- which turns out to be as clear and precise as the writing style of his memoir -- even his familiar origin story bears rehearing as he journeys back to when he was Robert Zimmerman of Hibbing, Minn., a mundane town where "you couldn't be a rebel -- it was too cold." Becoming Bob Dylan involved a constant infusion of music: "Listening to the radio, I got bored being there," Dylan says of the vistas opened through others' voices.
In high school, his principal recalls, the curtain is pulled on Dylan's rock-and-roll band, but he gets an inkling of the power of his words, noting with the slyest of smiles that two girls in particular "brought out the poet in me."
There's the eventual immersion in folk and the inevitable journey to New York, where it takes a Village to raise Bob Dylan. Several times, Dylan refers to himself as "a musical expeditionary," and we see him gradually transition from singing other people's songs to creating the stunning body of work that changed the face of popular music.
"I wrote the songs to perform the songs, and I needed to sing them in that language, which is a language I hadn't heard before," Dylan explains. His "Song for Woody" is part tribute, part liberation, the path to his own voice and the beginning of the first phase of his genius, when he's still in his early 20s and creating a cascade of timeless songs. "I could do that then," Dylan says. "I was in a certain arena artistically that no one else had been in before." Not boasting, just remembering.
While Scorsese celebrates Dylan's craft, he also shows the debilitating cost of iconhood -- the crush of ignorant and disinterested media, the incessant press of fans, the isolation of fame and the unbearable weight thrust upon Dylan as the voice of his generation. Of the many roads Dylan traveled down, that one had the deadest of ends, and he would need a motorcycle to take him off it.
There are volumes to come in Dylan's "Chronicles." Maybe Scorsese should start thinking about his first sequel.