New Scorsese Documentary Only a Pawn in Dylan’s Game

Among No Direction Home‘s DVD extras is an unused 1965 promo film for “Positively 4th Street” in which fan interview snippets cut against impressions of the Sphinx onstage—”he’s an old pal of mine” . . . “he doesn’t even know himself” . . . “I like the color of his eyes.” Lotta nerve, right? More likely, Dylan dug that market noise was just as key to his mirror play emergence as the pissy inscrutability Columbia’s ad hacks clumsily pimped. Before the nattering Ahabs of authenticity could even get a bead, he had his feet up lounging in the belly of the whale. In that spirit, his current Great Act (“The Sheepish Unveiling,” 1997—?) is neither zig nor zag, but a long-overdue reshuffling of a deck he’s been dealing for years. Martin Scorsese—whose three-and-a-half-hour “American Masters” epic is augmented here with extended performance footage and TV appearances—believes, like any good boomer, that history is best when problematized under glass. So his goal isn’t to poke through the god’s PR bubble, just to move us along from complete unknown to known unknown on whatever timetable Bobby chooses.

The “get” here, of course, is snips from a series of “what the hell, I almost died” interviews Dylan gave throughout the late ’90s, monologue workshoppings of Chronicles, Vol. 1‘s cosmic plainspeak delivered with clear-eyed sleight of hand. Scorsese, who loves chronicling his own L.E.S. boyhood dodging bullets and lead pipes on the way to seeing La Strada 6,000 times, has absolute empathy for the theatrical reliability of the unreliable narrator. Like any con job, it’s all about the buy-in and Marty’s always been his own best sucker. The mere rhythm of Dylanations like “I was a musical expeditionary” or “time obliterated the past,” the mytho-hoo-ha of his proclaimed childhood circus fix, or his insistence that the Newport ’65 boobirds literally never heard him is juice enough to unquestioningly whisk Quester Bob from rockabilly Twain teen of the accursed Iron Range to record-stealing Dinkytown dick to MacDougal Street mau-mau to his toughest role yet as the man who taught the ’60s how to chew gum then spat it back in its face. Since the whole world was indeed watching, Scorsese only rarely condescends to the “while Vietnam escalated, America did the twist” school of pop history gew-gawing. When he does (say, for the Kennedy assassination or a Mario Savio freestyle), the images have a refracted rush and seem almost new. This compression allows more room, especially in the first half, for another chapter in the once inconceivable reclamation of the Village cum cultural front early-’60s folk scene. If square but saucy Joan Baez and who-the-fucks like John Jacob Niles do little more musically than provide context as to why Devendra Banhart is such a teeth pull, no one gets punked as a straw man for anti-rock puritanism or New Left orthodoxy. As if easy villains are just as boring as easy saviors.

Even the English folk nerds who try to yell him off the stage when he and the Hawks play fucking loud are cast as naive rather than evil (Dylan himself wonders in a bit cribbed from D.A. Pennebaker why they keep buying up tickets). The rituals weren’t rituals yet. But in the second segment—following “Blowin’ in the Wind” through the cataclysms of Newport and the ’66 European tour—as Dylan moves from pop montage to someone else’s media moment, the mythological wiggle room tightens and his many sides come to a bullying head, or prick, hiding beneath the shades, having an ass-out time taking the best music ever into a wilderness he’s still working his way through right now.

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