by Dean Duncan
It’s the John Lennon story! This one obviously ended differently, but the sense of dread and impending is very powerful, and in fact makes this much more of a Scorsese picture than you might at first think. That unsettling, threatening something is just as powerful as in his more noted, more typical pictures, maybe even more so. This time it’s not George Wallace’s assailant/Travis Bickle, or Rupert Pupkin, or Joe Pesci (’95). Rather, it’s the entire, insatiable, insane collective. We can dismiss some of his fictional psychopaths as anomalies, or perversions; there’s no such reassurance here. That insatiable collective gives geniuses like Bob Dylan lots to think and talk about, and it does its very effective best to kill them, too.
Actually, that last description mostly applies to the third act of this drama. Before that we’ve got a great character, with a great story, all very modestly and effectively communicated. Scorcese? Is this a/nother sign that the firebrand has grown up, or gentled? Maybe, or it could be that the documentary form allows him to positively subordinate himself to other external or pre-existing realities. Everyone should make one! It must be a relief for an tortured and torturing expressionist like him, and it speaks well for him.
No Direction Home is a 207-minute movie devoted to the investigation of this ragged, protean, utter phenomenon. It isn’t a second too long. Look at the profitable ways in which they linger. Ask the questions, and explore a real range of answers to them. Do the secondary characters, the satellites even, the favour of seeing them as more than just satellites. They go way back. Dylan’s ancient associates really register, and give a tremendous sense of context, and mass movement. They all deserve documentaries! (Cf. de Antonio’s Eugene McCarthy movie.) Also, triumphantly, let that archival footage roll! This primary material has a real charge, serving as a powerful index to past realities. More than that, there’s something actually totemic going on. Seem inflated? It’s not, I don’t think. Sacred texts!
Dylan is so smart then, he’s so smart now. He’s elusive. You wonder. Is he just weird? (Then what about that luminously aware, beautifully written and deeply decent autobiog?) His fascinating speech cadences, the amazing sentences and paragraphs that he strings together so effortlessly, come off a bit like William Holden’s narration in Billy Wilder’s mordant, terminal Sunset Boulevard. You wouldn’t normally put these two things together.
They do go together, though, in a way that’s connected to that previous John Lennon comment. No Direction Home ends pretty triumphantly, with that famous incident that took place in Manchester, in 1966. Dylan had played his
first acoustic set. Then the Hawks—later The Band—come on and plug in, and a big part of the audience starts to boo. Listen carefully. Someone just called Dylan, a Jew, Judas. “I don’t believe you,” says Dylan. “You’re a liar!” Then he turns, and uttering just off-mic a profanity that actually seems kind of apt, urges his companions to play it loud! Boom, a barreling organ sound, and the angry poet stepping to the microphone: “Once upon a time you dressed so fine …”
That’s a good story, and it’s part of the picture. But leading up to that climax we are witness to a terrible escalation of pressure, scrutiny, presumption and hostile disapproval. In D.A. Pennebaker’s 1965 Dylan doc Don’t Look Back,Dylan takes advantage of his stature and celebrity on a couple of occasions, and speaks discourteously, even bullyingly (the Alan Price sequence) to a member of the press, or an importunate fan. He’s so quick, and they’re so slow. He’s so bright, and they’re so dim. He prevails, and they slink off.
No Direction Home shows us the other side of those exchanges, or a context that inflects them in a revealing way. The autobiography details it as well. In addition to the acclaim and adulation, Dylan was criticized, condemned, harangued, harassed, pilloried and vilified. It got to the point that his advocates and detractors were of equal concern. He was in fear for his life! And his family’s safety. And his sanity, maybe.
In the summer of 1966 Dylan had, or allegedly had, a motorcycle accident. He was injured. The accident caused him to withdraw from tour obligations, and from the promotional grind, and from public life entire. It may also had saved his life. Dylan remained a huge cultural force, but never to the extent that he had been in this first, dizzying halcyon period. After the Manchester concert, or the English tour in which it occurred, Dylan disappeared. The film ends there. Another course of action, and it might have ended with Mark David Chapman.