No Direction Home” is an honest documentary that rejects myths about rock music’s greatest songwriter and attempts to capture the truth about Bob Dylan, who chooses to play it straight for once, avoiding the mind and word games he has played with interviewers for five decades. By sticking to Dylan’s emergent years and using his heckled electric perfs as a prologue and a coda, director Martin Scorsese has created a document that will satiate Dylan fans over repeated viewings and should bring naysayers into the Dylan fold. The revelatory 3½-hour docu is a triumph.
Docu is certainly covering ground: After a world premiere Sept. 3 at Telluride, it screens at the Toronto Film Festival before a theatrical release via Emerging Pictures on the week of Sept. 20; that day, Paramount Home Entertainment will release the DVD (which includes an extra 45 minutes of material), followed a week later by airings on PBS and the BBC.
Scorsese has assembled a riveting collection of performance clips of the young, folkie and early electric Dylan. Technically, they shimmer visually and sonically, and as a story-telling agent, they convey the shock wave he sent through the New York music scene soon after his arrival. Best of all, the filmmaker has tied the story together with insights from Dylan’s inner-circle, and with lucid commentary and recollections by the artist himself.
In the 3½-hour work, Scorsese limits Dylan’s story to the crucial early years — up through the 1965 release of “Highway 61 Revisited” — and he has captured the performer at his most thoughtful, creating an eloquent companion piece to Dylan’s recent autobiography “Chronicles Vol. 1.”
Scorsese and his team were given the task of assembling a coherent biography from 10 hours of video interviews that archivist-manager Jeff Rosen shot of Dylan. (Dylan opened up his personal archives — film, audio, still photographs, handwritten lyrics — for Scorsese’s use.) The filmmaker and the songwriter had no contact with each other but their roots seemingly stem from the same tree: They share a fascination with New York City in the late 1950s and early ’60s; they found comfort in their ethnicity yet desired a greater world view; they worship ancient bluesmen; they’re storytellers; and deep down, they’re rock ‘n’ rollers.
Some of the footage will startle even the most dedicated Dylanologists. They’ve rounded up footage of Dylan performing at a civil rights rally in the South with Pete Seeger, Dylan at the March on Washington, Dylan playing “Mr. Tambourine Man” on a side stage at a Newport Folk Festival “topical song workshop.”
Part two opens with Dylan outside a store that sells cigarettes and provides care for pets; it’s a hoot to listen to his wordplay as he twists the words on a store sign and it’s an insight into the way he can make words dance.
“No Direction Home” is neither pedantic nor a fan letter, although Scorsese has the heart of a Dylan enthusiast. The docu clearly wants Dylan’s accomplishments like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” ‘With God on Our Side” and “Like a Rolling Stone” to be placed among other 20th century creations like “Porgy and Bess” and “Casablanca.”
Docu covers Dylan’s first 25 years (1941-66), in the last five of which he finds a voice that had never been heard in popular song. Dave Van Ronk, folk music’s bard prior to Dylan’s arrival and one of several interviewees who has passed away, knocks Dylan for freely stealing from others’ repertoire, but admits “if there is an American collective unconscious, Bob tapped into it.”
The folk music scene he invaded in 1960 was thriving, but lacked a Woody Guthrie figure, a contempo songwriter of significance and Dylan saw the empty spot on the mantle. Though he recorded only one original tune on his first album, when he made an album of originals on his second disc, 1963’s “Freewheelin’,” he created a prototype for the modern folkie.
He would do the same three years later with an electric guitar; whether solo or backed by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band or the men who would become the Band, the changes Dylan made to music hit like knockout punches. His contemporaries give interviews indicating that they knew right away he was like no other.
Dylan knew it, too, and set a goal for himself after observing performers who affected him. There’s “something in the eyes that says I know something you don’t. I wanted to be that kind of performer.”
The neatly divided doc starts with Dylan’s childhood in the mining town of Hibbing, Minn. “I was born very far from where I was supposed to be born,” a modern-day Dylan observes, noting that perhaps he was born to the wrong parents. “So I’m on my way home.”
He found early heroes in Webb Pierce, Johnny Ray, Muddy Waters and Gene Vincent, but it was folk music, he says, that “delivered in one song how I felt about life.”
After a semester at the University of Minnesota — mostly spent playing guitar and singing — Dylan left for New York and, some say, must have sold his soul to the devil, for his abilities advanced as if he had spent a decade practicing. Folk music was a music of interpretation; the art was in the positioning of music from long ago and far way — coal mines, the Old West, Appalachia — for modern auds with a sense of integrity.
Dylan invented a background for himself, claiming to have traveled through the Southwest with old blues and folk musicians and circus acts; some bought into these tales, but others brushed them off as hooey. He worked his way through clubs where the hat would be passed for spare change until he was finally earning a fee; he slept on couches and floors, taking records to learn tunes and books to learn new philosophies.
Story is at its best when discussing Dylan’s electric set at the Newport Folk Festival and the legendary “Pete Seeger and his Axe” story.
Observers — including Allen Ginsberg, a humorous(!) Joan Baez, musician Al Kooper, Folklore Center founder Izzy Young and producer Bob Johnston — tell vivid stories and, via clever editing, Scorsese and editor David Tedeschi draw an incredible level of humor out of some very serious times and issues.