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Paramount Studios presents
No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005)

"He's got the holy spirit about him. You can look at him and tell that." 
- Highway 61 Revisited producer Dave Johnston, on Bob Dylan

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: September 19, 2005

Stars: Bob Dylan
Other Stars: Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, Mavis Staples, Maria Muldaur, Peter Yarrow 
Director: Martin Scorsese

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 03h:28m:01s
Release Date: September 20, 2005
UPC: 097360310542
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A AA-A- B-

DVD Review

There's a tiny minority out there that bear the particular burden of the label "genius," and what may make this documentary so extraordinary is that it's a collaboration of sorts between two great artists who have been asked to carry that unbearable mantle. Produced in part by Apple, for PBS's American Masters series, this two-part film comes out on DVD days prior to its first television airing; it's the kind of thing for which TiVo was invented, but this Paramount release can save you the trouble of running home and pressing all those buttons.

No Direction Home is an expansive biography of Bob Dylan, beginning with his Minnesota childhood, and ending with his motorcycle accident in July 1966; in the months prior to the road mishap, Dylan had piqued the ire of a good percentage of his hardcore and deeply devoted fans by moving away from folk music and protest songs, by plugging in and playing some great, thinking person's rock. Martin Scorsese, aside from being regarded as one of the great directors of feature films, has produced a body of work as a documentarian that isn't perhaps as flashy, but is surely as heartfelt and memorable. The focus is squarely on Dylan's art, and not his life; this isn't a film that dishes dirt, but rather one that teases out musical influences, provides context for the Minnesota and Greenwich Village so necessary to Dylan's development as a songwriter and performer, and considers the impact of this supernova of a talent on the world of popular music along with the inevitable waxing and waning of popular opinion about a cultural figure of Dylan's renown. On some level, you need not even be a big fan of Dylan's music to appreciate Scorsese's portrayal of a particular time and place, with its cultural, political and social currents; but if you are a Dylan fan—and if you're reading this, I'd wager that you are—you'll find some tremendous insight about what may have been his most fertile creative period. This is, to be sure, not just a concert picture; Scorsese's film more than anything else resembles Pete Guralnick's spectacular two-volume biography of Elvis Presley, and it captures its historical moment as well as King of the World, David Remnick's extended essay on the early professional career of Muhammad Ali.

Things begin of course in Hibbing, Minnesota, the small town in which Robert Zimmerman grew up, listening to 50,000-watt radio stations from faraway places broadcasting Hank Williams, Johnnie Ray and Muddy Waters, among others. Hibbing was little more than a Main Street, and Scorsese emphasizes the inevitably seedy aspects of things; young Bob was especially enchanted by visiting carnies, by life on the road. The film eschews narration, but the archivists and researchers were surely working overtime, because the vintage footage from the 1950s and 1960s is extraordinary. The connective tissue of the production, which runs for better than three hours, are contemporary interviews with Dylan himself—this is the reflective, wry, sanguine Dylan that shines through in his recently published volume of memoirs. Soon Bob leaves Minnesota for New York, and for reasons known to him alone, takes on Dylan as a surname—in tribute to Dylan Thomas? To bypass possible encounters with anti-Semitism? Or perhaps just because "Bob Dylan" sounds exactly right?

Whatever the case, young Dylan is pretty extraordinary—he's a deft musical mimic, among other things, and soon immerses himself in the work of Woody Guthrie, seeing himself as the rightful heir to Guthrie's tradition of protest music. He brought his fierce intelligence and musical facility to the New York coffeehouse scene of the early 1960s, encountering Allen Ginsberg, Joan Baez, the other necessary figures from this period, and the film is full of great performance footage, and of documents, especially Dylan's original lyric sheets, either scrawled by hand or typed with ferocity. Improbably enough, Dylan is signed by Columbia Records; his first album sells maybe 2,500 copies, but Albert Grossman becomes his Colonel Parker of sorts, fashioning the Dylan that would become such a major cultural figure so shortly thereafter.

There's new interview footage also with Pete Seeger, Mavis Staples, Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and Mary); soon Blowin' in the Wind becomes a staple, covered by everyone, including the Jerry Lewis Singers. Scorsese cuts out of the narrative with frequency to a contentious 1966 Dylan concert in London, where the sense of apostasy is palpable: audience members bark "Judas!" at him, and he feels the need to parry: "Don't boo me anymore!" Aside from those battles, though, there's a broader sense of the influence of McCarthyism, of the civil rights movement, and later of the Vietnam War, on popular culture in general, and on Dylan in particular; Part One ends with the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, with Dylan and Baez performing together, with an innocence and a universality that you rarely see in any medium.

Part Two is much more about Dylan as a public figure; parrying inane questions at endless press conferences; fending off demands for autographs, squaring his desire as an artist to explore, to forge new ground, with his audience's insistence that he stay the same: "What happened to Woody Guthrie, Bob?" Not that he's a figure to feel sorry for, but it was clearly a burden, to be 23 and labeled the voice of your generation, when you just want to light up a smoke, chat up a girl, sing your new song. You can see Dylan working through and past his folk music roots; in many respects the breakthrough song here is Like a Rolling Stone, and you sense the elation in him, along with the betrayal felt by Seeger and those who thought that Dylan was firmly and forever in their camp. The 1965 Newport set is legendary, and is well represented here; it's a scant fifteen minutes, and is just three songs, the music frequently peppered with boos. Soon thereafter we see Dylan's new backing musicians, who would become The Band, and Scorsese in some respects has come full circle, to the group that was the subject of The Last Waltz. Dylan may never again have achieved the artistic and popular heights of these first five years on the public stage—few artists have, before or since—and of course there's almost another forty years of history to fill in from that time to ours. But as a portrait of the artist as a young man, this is an astonishingly successful, informative and entertaining documentary. 

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The mass or archival footage is of course variable in its quality, but the transfer is a good, solid one; Scorsese's camera, in the new interview footage, has just a hint of the director's characteristic fluidity, lest you think that Bob Dylan's life has been given the Ken Burns treatment.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Either track is a fine option, though certainly the vintage Dylan performances frequently have more than their fair share of buzz, hiss and pop.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 23 cues and remote access
Music/Song Access with 30 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring Mad Hot Ballroom, Paramount John Wayne DVDs, MacGyver
13 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Gladiator style 2-pack
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: Aside from chaptering, each disc also includes links directly to the musical performances excerpted in the feature. The bonus material is on the second disc, and the heart of the matter is a collection (32m:02s) of eight Dylan performances: Blowin' in the Wind (1963); Girl of the North Country, Man of Constant Sorrow, and Mr. Tambourine Man (1964); Love Minus Zero (1965); I Can't Leave Her Behind, Like a Rolling Stone, and One Too Many Mornings (1966). The best of them may be Mr. Tambourine Man, with Dylan trying it out at a Newport songwriting workshop; Pete Seeger sits behind him, all the while tapping his foot.

There are also what are billed as four Guest Performances (10m:21s), others interviewed in the feature covering Dylan songs—Mavis Staples sings A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall; Liam Clancy favors us with Girl of the North Country; Joan Baez does a rueful rendition of Love Is Just a Four Letter Word; and Maria Muldaur sings movingly on Lord, Protect My Child. The only other extra is an unused promotional spot (03m:58s) for Positively 4th Street, featuring fans weeping, and Dylan refusing to doff his shades.

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

It's difficult to determine who is more fortunate: Martin Scorsese, for being given a story to tell brimming with potency and pungency, or Bob Dylan, for having such an empathetic biographer with the keenest possible ear for popular music and culture. Fans of both the filmmaker and the songwriter will be amply rewarded by watching this truly magisterial telling of Dylan's earliest years on the public stage; it humanizes the icon, provides the cultural context for his emergence, and respects the individual mysteries of what you'd have to call genius. Very highly recommended.


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