Monday, September 26, 2005

He's Not Selling Any Alibis

Bob Dylan is arguably the greatest artist of the past fifty years. As acclaimed as his work often is, his music has such depth that people are likely going to be discovering new insights from it years after he leaves this place. You take a song like "Angelina" that hardcore fans may appreciate, yet because it's lesser known than many other songs in Dylan's catalog, it remains sadly unheard by ears that should be listening.

Another person who could rightfully stake claim to the lofty title of the greatest artist in our lifetime is filmmaker Martin Scorsese. His body of work from King of Comedy to The Aviator, from Taxi Driver to The Last Temptation of Christ blows just about any other film of the past few decades out of the water.

Thus the combination of Scorsese making a documentary about Dylan is somewhat akin to when the first professional Olympic basketball team, "The Dream Team" was assembled allowing Magic to play with Bird and Michael Jordan. It was almost too good to believe and yet you were almost afraid to watch fearing that the real thing couldn't live up to one's expectations.

Scorsese's No Direction Home thankfully is everything one could hope for. As a biography about Dylan it reveals so much about such an enigmatic artist. As a documentary about a vital part of our cultural and political history, it is essential viewing. I began watching it late one evening knowing I had precious few hours before I had to head into work and thus thinking I'd just watch a few minutes to get a flavor of the thing. Unfortunately I couldn't stop watching, couldn't shut it off and ended up showing up for work the next day with bloodshot eyes and tired as hell.

Even if you're not a Dylan fan No Direction Home is requisite viewing (it plays tonight and tomorrow night on PBS). There are great clear black and white musical clips of Hank Williams, Billie Holiday, Howlin Wolf, Woody Guthrie, and Odetta (WHOMP!) to name just a few. Scorsese's deft filmmaking makes the 207 minutes seem breathtakingly short. One just wants the documentary to go on and on.

Dylan's rise to fame is chronicled in a way never previously imagined even for those of us who were spellbound by the words of the memoir, Chronicles Volume One, he released last year. To see on film, a cheeky young Bob hit New York City as a cherubic imitator of the folk music he was immersing himself in, and grow into a mystical force of substantial significance is something to behold. That Scorsese is able to show Bob's evolution from a ambitious, talented youth into this scornful, weary, burned out poet bound to crash, is fascinating stuff.

No Direction Home captures the astounding hostility Dylan endured just because he decided to play an electric guitar with a band rather than continuing on by himself, with an acoustic guitar (and harmonica). As his music goes from the political to the personal, digging deeper and deeper than anyone else ever had, some of his fans felt betrayed. He's unmercifully booed at every concert, he's confronted by a clueless press, he's jostled by confused fans, jittery and looking like he hasn't slept for months, Dylan looks like he's knocking on heaven's door.

And the music created is startling. Seeing performances of searing and intensely sad performances of songs like "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" and "Leopard-skin Pill-box Hat" is transfixing as if Bob is channeling something quite beyond the realm of pop music. "I had a perspective on the booing," the latter day Dylan recalls. "After all, kindness can kill."

Scorsese's snippets of interviews with Dylan show a leery and weary but wanting to add to his own legacy, still charismatic blue-eyed boy. Talking about his treatment of Joan Baez who helped him professionally as he was breaking her personally, Bob comes close to apologizing for his behavior. "I hope she understands," he says carefully choosing his words. "You can't be wise and be in love."

Baez herself tells the story of what makes Dylan such a great artist. At the height of her fame when she was probably the most respected singer in the country and he was a somewhat unknown but upcoming singer/songwriter that she was helping along, the two of them were checking into a hotel. She had no problem getting a room but management wanted no part of him. She pulled all strings to secure him a room and he then stayed up all night writing "When the Ship Comes In." "Oh the foes will rise/With the sleep still in their eyes/And they'll jerk from their beds and think they're dreamin/But they'll pinch themselves and squeal/And know that it's for real/The hour when the ship comes in/Then they'll raise their hands/Sayin' we'll meet all your demands..."

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