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No Direction Home: Bob Dylan

The term "rock and roll rebel" invokes perhaps a handful of names: Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Frank Zappa. But a spin through Martin Scorsese's 2005 documentary No Direction Home makes it clear that Bob Dylan deserves the title more than anyone else, and not simply because he was a figurehead of the 1960s anti-establishment counterculture. In fact, Dylan was a reluctant rebel. He preferred to remain enigmatic, but even a casual observer back then could see that the only thing that mattered to him was his music — a broad and lifelong passion that eventually put him in conflict not with the forces of establishment during the turbulent sixties, but with music fans themselves. Over a few short years, Dylan built his enduring reputation with such acoustic classics as "Blowin' in the Wind" and "The Times They Are a Changin'," but almost as quickly he set aside his well-known troubadour persona, put together a backing band, plugged in a Fender Telecaster, and navigated a new aural landscape, belting out such numbers as the hard-charging "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and epic "Like a Rolling Stone." In one of the most famous and controversial incidents in modern music, Dylan debuted his new band at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival to unprecedented audience hostility — the whistles, hoots, and boos would plague his live performances for the next several months in America and Europe. But Dylan did not look back. After 1966 he took an eight-year sabbatical from live performances, but the folksy troubadour was no more.

It seems that Bob Dylan forged his career not merely from literate, evocative music, but also by defying audience expectations. Such would continue long after the sixties, both with his explicitly Christian albums of the early 1980s and even later, when many critics claimed that his songwriting gifts had faltered. Nonetheless, No Direction Home astutely confines itself to Dylan's most mercurial years, from his earliest days as a solo performer to the 1966 motorcycle accident that allowed him to retreat from the light and heat of his own celebrity. Born Robert Zimmerman, Dylan grew up in Hibbing, Minn., where he wasn't much of a rebel at all, by his account in part because there wasn't an establishment to rebel against, and also because "It was too cold to be bad." Teaching himself how to play the guitar at ten years old, Dylan showed little interest in school but was fascinated by rare folk and country records, as well as the AM radio stations from New Orleans he could listen to at night. After a brief flirtation with college (he was enrolled, but never attended classes), Dylan left Minnesota, eventually arriving in New York's Greenwich Village, where he gained attention in the "basket houses," coffee shops where singers passed baskets among patrons for money. With his youth and talent, Dylan seemed assured to land a contract with a minor label, such as Folkways or Vanguard. Amazingly, Mitch Miller signed him to the powerhouse Columbia Records, where his second album, 1963's The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, made him an international sensation. But Dylan was not content to play only folk music; he was even less interested in "topical songs" or politics. And as the 1960s counterculture swirled into a tighter vortex around civil rights, free speech, and the Vietnam War, the "spokesman of his generation" turned out to be nothing of the sort, "going electric" and more esoteric with such albums as Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing It All Back Home.

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Overflowing with music, archive films, and interviews, the foremost asset of Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home is Bob Dylan himself — a musical celebrity who has consistently resisted personal interpretation by others, Dylan's many low-key, self-effacing comments are invaluable, particularly when they run against the grain of conventional wisdom. An early radio interview with Studs Turkel is amusing and insightful, as Turkel offhandedly claims "A Hard Rain's Gonna Come" is about atomic rain ("No," Dylan interrupts, "it's a hard rain — it's a hard rain!"), and he conveys the same aloof sincerity in his later years, denying that he took his nom de plume from Dylan Thomas, unwilling to say if the Rashomon-esque events at Newport '65 were about him or something more complex, and readily admitting his disdain for the pigeonhole of "topical" songwriting. While Part One of the 3 hour, 21 min. film concentrates primarily on the folk milieu Dylan entered in the early '60s, the more energetic Part Two focuses on both Dylan's music and his combative relationship with the media, who wrote in bullet-points and on deadline. To them, Dylan was a contemporary of Joan Baez and Pete Seeger; Dylan's own heroes included Woody Guthrie and Johnny Cash. Seemingly immune to the ravages of fame, Dylan's singular musical furrow was of his own making, unconcerned with the public's demands. And while easily annoyed by the press and public alike, he was content to remain an anti-polemicist, despite his adoption by political forces he may have sympathized with but never joined. Dylan's influence on John Lennon at the time was palpable, but their two careers would wildly diverge by the end of the decade, with Lennon and Yoko Ono becoming a sometimes-shrill publicity machine of the peace movement; around the same time, Dylan recorded the country album Nashville Skyline. In fact, his finest peer may not have been a contemporary at all, but Walt Whitman, who once said he wasn't interested in a poetry that would define national elections, but instead make them irrelevant.

Paramount's two-disc DVD release of No Direction Home: Bob Dylan offers a pristine full-frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR) with source materials of varying quality due to age, although everything comes across as very presentable. Audio also is crisp and clean with Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround options. Both discs include bonus chapter selection linking directly to individual song presentations, while Disc Two also features eight full-length Dylan performances, four bonus performances from other artists featured in the film, and an unused 1965 promotional spot for "Positively 4th Street." Dual-DVD slimline keep-case.
—JJB



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