No Direction Home

"It was not necessary for him to be a definite person"

I just saw the first part of Martin Scorsese's "No Direction home", his documentary about Bob Dylan. It lasted almost two hours. I had to pee after twenty minutes, but I couldn't bring myself to stop watching, not even for a minute.

It's just that fascinating.

Somehow, you can feel that the guy who directed this is used to narrative. Oh, there's no voice-over, and the structure is anything but linear - unlike the traditional biopic - and yet, still, there's a story here. Oh yes, we hear of Dylan's start and evolution as a musician, filled with wonderful archive footage and even more wonderful music, not just by him but by so many of the people who inspired him, sang at the same time as him, or simply were part of the same movement he came out of. But in between, we see footage of a later performance (or several performances, I'm not sure) in Britain where Dylan is booed, called a traitor, told to go off stage, and many of the people interviewed on the spot talk of betrayal, of infidelity in a way. It's a great way of building curiosity about how Dylan went from folk hero to outcast, and it makes us think about how things we see might give hints of what's to come, but it also shows that Scorsese's taken a very clear beginning and ending for his story. And has a very clear idea about how to get from start to finish, refusing the linear approach.

I know I seem to be talking about music and movies a lot. It's a subject that's been making me think lately though. For example, this documentary, you could say it's mostly about what people sing and about what people say, about sound then. Still, it would have been an entirely different experience. Many documentaries get criticized for being just talking heads, and many documentary makers seem to think the solution can be found in flashy cuts and animations.

Not Scorsese though. He cuts away to silent images of bare trees in mist. To beautiful pictures of ordinary people, black and white masterpieces. And he chooses just those images that suggest something just a little more complicated underneath.

There have been complaints that Dylan and his "people" had too much say in how the movie turned out. That crucial people he might or might not have stolen from have been left out. That overall, this is just another cryptic tribute to the master.

I'm not sure. Yes, Dylan is portrayed rather positively, as an opportunist, a borrower, a conceited asshole sometimes, perhaps, but above everything as a chameleon and a genius. An inspirator. But then again, can there really be a documentary about Dylan that denies that he's an elusive kind of virtuoso?

One thing the documentary really emphasized is something I didn't really know of before: music really was a malleable, cannibalized thing back then, or well, more than it is now. Bob Dylan himself started out singing other people's songs, and the movie quickly offered shots of a dozen albums that all featured "Blowin' in the wind". There is also an image of a pop chart with Blowin' in the wind...Sung by Peter, Paul and Mary. I have to admit I'm not an expert on sixties music, but I've never heard of them. The only version of the song I knew until now was the one sung by Dylan himself.

The idea we get from the doc - and I say it this carefully because I really have no way of checking the accuracy of this - is that songs were pretty much fair game. There's talk of a version of House of the rising sun being passed on, more or less voluntarily, from one of the people interviewed (I'm bad at names...) to Dylan, who put it on his first album, to the Animals, whose version is now not only famous but, I think, for many people the one version they know, even if they are aware that it is actually a much older traditional song.

Funny detail: Bob Dylan is also seen in this singing "Man of Constant Sorrow". Yes, the song from "O' brother where art thou".

The other thing that really struck me is the fact that he was twenty when all this started. Twenty when he started writing songs, started performing, started to mold a dozen different styles together, refining them to what would become the sound of a generation.

I'm twenty.

Oh well. I've never really thought i'd have a life story worthy of a Scorsese doc anyway.

The thing is, of course, that I got acquainted with Bob Dylan long after his glory days. Long after his metamorphosing. For a long time, all I knew of him was his Best Of, and to me, Blowin' in the rain and Like a Rolling Stone fit right together. Oh, my dad told me that Dylan "went all Christian for a while", and that the quality of his music was kind of variable, but my dad, being born in 51, kind of came to Bob Dylan late too, and his favorite album - I think - is "Blonde on Blonde" from 66, the year Scorsese chose to let his documentary end.

Bob Dylan, of course, relishes being an enigma. There's one quote in the film from Joan Baez who remembers Dylan amusing himself, thinking of all the people who will analyze his lyrics, lyrics he admits to not understanding completely himself. I usually dislike pretentious obscureness, but I can imagine the feeling. And Dylan's words are so fun to interpret, which is why, soon, I'll add "Cronicles, Vol. 1" to my Sinterklaas list on the right.

The funny thing is, Dylan influences or not, in the current interview he always seems...dodgy somehow. He acts the wizened man, admits to probably having been wrong, but somehow, he gives off the impression that he's just trying to con us once more. Scorsese gets in his face during this interview, everything's in close-up, every twitch recorded, and rather than this giving an impression of honesty and openness, it makes the man even more impenetrable. Like Scorsese wants to let us realize that whatever images he shows us, we're going to have to make up our own minds anyway.

One last thing about the chamelionness many of the interviewed people emphasize. Yes, he switched from country to folk to more electronic music, but from the distance of say thirty-five years, the changes lose their magnitude, and the anger people expressed felt hysterical.

Then again, I follow every single change in direction Ryan Adams makes with the greatest interest, and they aren't even change in message or content, just in musical style. He got himself a backing band too, and I'm not sure I'm all that enthusiastic about that. But that'sa topic for another day, for another rambling entry about Ryan Adams, his new CD, the why of my name...

The second part of No Direction Home airs on BBC2 tomorrow, 10 pm Dutch time (9pm in Britain). I'll be sure to go to the bathroom beforehand this time.


P.S. Now that I see what Scorsese can do with a documentary...if anyone knows where I can get his "il mio viaggio in Italia" (or his doc on American movies that inspired him) in the Netherlands, let me know.

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