By now it’s fair to ask whether we really need another treatise on Bob Dylan—be it a book or a movie or some rambling unsolicited monologue from the guy behind us in line at Starbucks—and I think it’s fair to answer that if it comes from Martin Scorsese, then yes; yes we do. No Direction Home, on American public television last week and now on DVD with extras aplenty from Paramount, is both a Dylanological milestone and a high point in the filmmaker’s career: this is absolutely the documentary Dylan deserves, and it is absolutely the perfect vessel for Scorsese’s talent and temperament.
Many of the movie’s strengths are obvious: All those writers and critics who’ve prophesized with their pens—and accordingly been unable to get Bob to talk to them—will surely envy the film’s rare, frank rapport with the man; obsessives will cherish the abundance of previously unseen footage, and most of the rest of us will just find it really interesting. No Direction Home makes use of several candid character witnesses, like Allen Ginsberg, who chokes up rather poetically at recalling his first exposure to Dylan’s music, and Joan Baez, who with well-earned authority and a succinct wit reminds us that Dylan is “unique, admirable and a pain in the ass.”
And of course Scorsese makes the most of the music. This is delivered variously and cinematically—as, for instance, when “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” runs over a montage of the familiar footage associated with the Kennedy assassination, marrying iconic imagery with iconic sound and transmuting both, against all odds, from near-depleted tropes into legitimate, reborn profundities. Granted, one mysterious truth of Dylan’s music is the implicit suggestion that any montage over which it’s laid will automatically become culturally meaningful, or at least very poignant, simply by association—what’s revelatory here is Scorsese’s gracious confidence to prove this axiom by bowing to it. Thus does the factual but deliberately elliptical No Direction Home succeed as a movie biography in ways that the fictionalized and over-explanatory The Aviator could not do.
The online ads for No Direction Homestarted with an image from the DVD cover—a black-and-white shot of Bob, in shades, face-on to the camera in simultaneous availability and defiance—broken into puzzle pieces, which quickly floated together before your eyes. While it’s accurate to call Dylan a puzzle, it is misleading to suggest that this movie will so nimbly, or willingly, assemble his pieces for you. Time and again the film restrains itself from attempting to define him, and the not trying is what makes it so definitive.
No Direction Home owes much of its great power to the filmmaker’s finely honed intuition about how popular music can really get to us. Scorsese has always used music to enliven his movies—in some cases employing it to achieve characterizations more brilliantly than he could using many of the other considerable dramatic tools at his disposal—and to set a precedent for a whole generation of younger filmmakers. When reminded in No Direction Homeof how Dylan scavenged folk music from the public domain of cultural memory, then personalized and reinvigorated it, I remembered too how Scorsese initiated a corresponding revolution of movie soundtracks: He showed us how a set of already-known songs could be far more powerful than an original score. The result was a vastly influential popular idiom that seems winningly old and new at once.
No wonder the director has such an affinity for his subject. It works to his great advantage. When speaking of his strongest influences, Dylan confesses in the film, “There was something in their eyes that would say…‘I know something you don’t know.’ And I wanted to be that kind of performer.” Isn’t that just the sort of ambition by which many of Scorsese’s most memorable protagonists have been motivated? This is the director most famous for characters who, as Stephen E. Severn observed in Film Quarterly, in his essay on The Last Waltz, “must confront the manipulation of image as a means for eliminating risk. Those who successfully manipulate image, either consciously or unconsciously, become winners, and those who do not become the exploited, the losers.”
The Last Waltz, also a documentary about musicians (including some who played with Dylan in those fateful UK concerts at which fans called him “Judas” for leaving behind his acoustic protest songs), is an important precursor to No Direction Home, especially because it encodes a classic Scorsese story pattern. His best movies tend to favour men who fashion themselves—and who demand sovereignty over their self-image at all costs—in resistance to the eras that have attempted to fashion them.
As with the main characters in Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, and Goodfellas, Dylan’s achievements are framed as pyrrhic victories. This picture’s title, don’t forget, is a lyric from Dylan’s famous epistle of vindictive macho fury—and is there an American director now working who better understands vindictive macho fury?
Arguably, it’s personal. Here we see Dylan, an outsider by nature but also by manner, bristle whenever he’s labelled a cultural insider. Similarly, Scorsese, although now plainly a legend in his field, remains wilfully removed from Hollywood (some cite his persistent Oscarlessness as the penalty). To hear Dylan say, as he does here, “I never thought I was breaking through anything—I was just working with an existing form,” is to register an echo of comments Scorsese, a formidable historian of film, has made about his own work.
No Direction Home reveals Dylan as Scorsese’s most effectual muse since that other Bobby D. —Robert De Niro. At this moment in their respective creative lives, Dylan is Scorsese’s perfect subject. As an artist, each remains ambivalently apart from a cultural movement they helped invent, and each has a history to live up to. In this movie, they do.
Jonathan Kiefer is Maisonneuve’s film flâneur. His column appears every two weeks. Read more columns by Jonathan Kiefer.