The Last Temptation of Dylan
Watching the new documentary.
About an hour into Bob Dylan: No Direction Home, Joan Baez—in an interview that will be edited by your PBS station—recalls an invincible young Dylan imagining what they'll be saying about him in the future: "A bunch of years from now, all these assholes are going to be writing about all this shit I write, and I don't know where the fuck it comes from and I don't know what the fuck it's about, and they're going to write about what it's about." Here we are. This documentary comes complete with a Starbucks tie-in, an Apple logo, and a celebrity director's credit. That director is Martin Scorsese, who has surely coveted access to this footage—donated by D.A. Pennebaker, Murray Lerner, and others—having already shot Dylan as the pièce de résistance to his documentary about The Band, The Last Waltz. But before you get too excited about this crossroads meeting, viewer, beware: This project was co-produced by Dylan's manager Jeff Rosen. Scorsese was brought in well after Rosen had already conducted the interviews and approved the material. What will all these assholes be saying about Dylan? In this "Martin Scorsese Picture," whatever the Dylan people want.
We'll take it gratefully, of course. No Direction Home is framed by footage from a 1966 European tour in which Dylan was hounded by the folkie furies for plugging in with the Hawks, who later became The Band. (This footage is from Pennebaker's never-released and seldom-seen Eat the Document.)As the documentary opens, we see Dylan performing the classic rock warhorse "Like a Rolling Stone." The record had already been a No. 2 single, but it was still a rock 'n' roll Rite of Spring, too raw for the purists in 1966. You know you are in the hands of an auteur and not just a random PBS hack when, midverse, just when Dylan is about to snarl more adenoidal invective to Miss Lonely, Scorsese cuts to a frigid, silent Minnesota wilderness. The scene conveys a visceral feeling of Dylan defiantly inventing himself, not out of Abe and Beatty Zimmerman's middle-class Jewish home, but out of bleak nothingness, filled only by a wafting, distant radio playing Bill Monroe's "Drifting Too Far From the Shore."*Dylan, sounding like a crotchety Grandpa, recalls that the winters were "rightly cold" and that he "didn't have the clothes you have now. It was so cold, you couldn't be bad."
Young Bobby Zimmerman was bad enough, though, stealing folk records from a collector friend in the name of being "a musical expeditionary." In the documentary, we get only hints of the artful thievery that Dylan specialized in and profited from. "Blowin' in the Wind," for example, was lifted from the Negro spiritual "No More Auction Block," and Dylan's musical expeditions continue—on his most recent album, he was accused of lifting passages from an obscure Japanese novel. "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal." T.S. Eliot said that. "Don't steal, don't lift." Bob Dylan said that. He did indeed steal and lift, but only in the service of an art that was all his. No Direction Home doesn't spell out this aesthetic, but in a 1964 clip, Dylan provides an answer of sorts to his critics. Steve Allen asks Dylan if he sings his own material or other people's. He replies: "They're all mine, now."
For 225 minutes, Dylan is all ours now, at least what he lets us see. Even though Scorsese does his share of sepia scanning, we are not, thank God, in PBS purgatory, with a portentous narrator telling you what to think. We are jerked back and forth between the lapsed bar mitzvah boy of '61 to the bleary-eyed near rock 'n' roll suicide of '66. We witness him singing "I'm not weary" in a '66 performance of "Mr. Tambourine Man," but he looks weary as hell. Has any 25-year-old ever been so jaded?
To narrate selected details from this journey from the Iron Range to Greenwich Village to Rock Star Babylon, we get generous, attention-span respecting clips of Dylan performances and reminiscences from carefully selected talking heads. We see John Jacob Niles—a silver-haired kook with an autoharp and a scary falsetto—singing a traditional line that would later kick off Dylan's "It Ain't Me, Babe." We sit in Manhattan's White Horse Tavern with Liam Clancy, an insufferably melodramatic Irish folkie perched in front of a pint of ale that does not seem like his first of the night. We sip tea with boho chicks extraordinaire Maria Muldaur and Suze Rotolo, delighting in their brushes with fame. We are in a gray room with Allen Ginsberg, who looks like he's on his way to Desolation Row. (Ginsberg died in '97, by the way, demonstrating how long this project has been cooking.) Ginsberg gets choked up remembering his first listening of "Hard Rain," not because he was moved, but because he felt, with more than a little narcissism, that "the torch had been passed."
In the documentary, "Hard Rain" also becomes the soundtrack to JFK's assassination, interrupted by the sound of Jack Ruby's gun. But here is one place where the movie takes a dodge: We see Dylan accepting an award from the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee shortly after Nov. 22, 1963. Scorsese reads portions of Dylan's speech aloud—sounding nothing like Dylan, but a lot like the psycho he played in Taxi Driver—but he leaves out the kicker, when Dylan tells the stunned crowd that he identified with Lee Harvey Oswald. This incident is no secret—it's in every Dylan biography, including Robert Shelton's authorized one—but apparently PBS (or Apple or Starbucks) were apprehensive about a hero quite that transgressive.
The whitewashing doesn't end with that moment: Where, in this rock 'n' roll biopic, are the sex and drugs? The only mention of these essential Dylanesque tropes comes from the lewd, crude, and dangerous Peter Yarrow (usually seen on PBS in telethons with his partners in crime Paul and Mary), who wistfully recalls, "Everyone wanted to get high with Bobby. Everyone wanted to sleep with Bobby." Where's that documentary? In production on the E! Entertainment Television? Never mind: The footage tells us everything we need to know. Scorsese has one of his finest moments when he presents the creation of "Like a Rolling Stone," a song overexposed on classic rock radio and gratuitously pawed by Greil Marcus in his overwrought book about it. Scorsese kicks new life into this classic when he ingeniously plays it over scenes from Dylan's 1965 screen test for Andy Warhol. We see Dylan the Icon at his pop-culture zenith, his bloodshot eyes staring into that lens like a mug shot, as if to say, "What was it you wanted?" or maybe just, "Look out, kid."
This ending would have made a perfect crucifixion narrative for Scorsese if Dylan had gotten more mangled up in that motorcycle crash that ends this madness in the summer of '66—a crash that may or may not have been all that it was cracked up to be. Dylan was certainly on a perilous course back then, and Pennebaker's camera was whirling every minute. We see Dylan propping himself in front of a piano with a pre-rehab Johnny Cash fumbling for the lyrics to "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." More powerful is Dylan singing "Visions of Johanna" like he really has been "up past the dawn," ready to keel over any minute, belting out tormented brilliance with every syllable. It was clear that Dylan, reaching the height of his powers, was smarting from all the boos and jeers and "voice of a generation" crap he still complains about. In the most legendary moment of that tour—captured on the CD Live 1966—some bloke from the audience trying to initiate a folkie pogrom called him "Judas!" But he survived all of that, only to profit from the martyrdom today. Dylan may have finally reached the last temptation, cross-promoting himself with a Starbucks latte and a Victoria's Secret Angel bra, a marketing triumph that would have made his wheeler-dealer manager Albert Grossman proud: Call it Pimp My Dylan.
As this documentary reminds us why Dylan hid from the spotlight in those dizzy days of '66, we have to wonder why he's taking charge of it now. With the first volume of his memoirs out and a stack of future retrospective projects in the works, why is the usually publicity-shy Dylan suddenly grunting and mumbling to Ed Bradley on 60 Minutes and talking about himself, usually his least favorite subject? Dylan has been giving thrilling performances these days, but they also seem like poignant, moribund gasps. He's now reading from lyric sheets and switched from guitar from piano, and it's inevitable that he can't be going down the highway forever. While his fans are fascinated by the sublime, wheezing wreck Dylan has become, the most poignant and perceptive talking head in No Direction Home is the eerily preserved Baez. She was too prim for Dylan's rock 'n' roll lifestyle of '65, but here she is singing a version of "Love Is Just a Four Letter Word" with her vocal chops intact. She stole that song from Dylan back then, and 40 years later, with this haunting performance, she steals No Direction Home from him, too, not a bad revenge for being publicly jilted in Don't Look Back. She still obviously has it bad for the guy, and this movie seduces us into understanding why. "I don't know what he thought about," Baez says. "I only know what he gave us."
David Yaffe is assistant professor of English at Syracuse University and the author of Fascinating Rhythm: Reading Jazz in American Writing.
Photograph of Bob Dylan by Getty Images.