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Eat the Documentary: Scorsese's Dylan Film Premieres on PBS, BBC

By Tom White

Bob Dylan in Aust, England, 1966. From Martin Scorsese's 'AMERICAN MASTERS: No Direction Home: Bob Dylan.' Photo: Barry Feinstein.

It took Susan Lacy over a decade of dogged pursuit, but on September 26 and 27, she will finally realize her dream when PBS airs No Direction Home: Bob Dylan as part of the American Masters series, of which she is executive producer.

The two-part film, which runs three and a half hours, was directed by Martin Scorsese, and produced by Lacy of Thirteen/WNET New York, Jeff Rosen of Grey Water Park Productions, Nigel Sinclair of Spitfire Pictures and Anthony Wall of BBC's Arena series. The other producing companies include Sikelia Productions, in co-production with Vulcan Productions and NHK. The production will also air on BBC on the same nights. In addition, Paramount Home Entertainment will release the DVD version of the documentary on September 20. And in keeping with blockbuster productions like this one, Columbia/Legacy records will release a double CD of the soundtrack, featuring some of Dylan's greatest work from perhaps his greatest period--1961-1966--as well as rare and unreleased recordings, and Simon & Schuster will publish The Bob Dylan Scrapbook 1956-1966. "This has been the most remarkable collaboration, united by one thing: We love Bob Dylan," Lacy declared at a screening at the Television Critics Association conference in July.

No Direction Home concentrates on Dylan's life and career up to 1966, the year after he "went electric" at the Newport Jazz Festival, betraying a legion of fans who wanted the tousle-haired, guitar-strumming troubadour cum protest singer for their own. Footage from a May 1966 concert in Manchester, England--which was punctuated by boos and cries of "Judas!"--serves as an interstitial piece throughout the film, connecting the artist he was becoming with the artist he'd become. Dylan himself lends a wry on- and off-camera presence, taking us from his humble beginnings in Hibbing, Minnesota, through his formative years in the artistic hotbed of Greenwich Village, to the "voice of a generation" public persona that he grew to disdain and struggled to shed. Other old comrades from that era, such as Joan Baez, Dave Van Ronk, Pete Seeger and Alan Ginsberg, are on hand to share their memories of beholding this new force in their midst.

Dylan calls himself a "musical expeditionary" in the film, having absorbed early on a disparate array of influences--Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Muddy Waters, Billie Holiday, Johnny Cash, Jack Kerouac, among many others. The film includes footage of all those artists, as well as clips from Murray Lerner's Festival, which documents performances at the 1963, 1964 and 1965 Newport Folk Festivals; DA Pennebaker's Dont Look Back, about Dylan's 1965 tour of the UK; and Eat the Document, which Pennebaker shot and which Dylan himself directed and edited with Howard Alk, about Dylan's 1966 UK tour.

"When we first began discussing this project years ago, we were overwhelmed by the material at hand--home movies and history-making concert footage, fascinating interviews with Dylan's friends and fellow performers and, of course, Dylan himself, speaking so frankly about this incredible period in his life," said Lacy in a prepared statement. "What we needed, above all, was an artist with a singular vision who could fuse this material into a unique visual narrative. That artist was Martin Scorsese, who graciously agreed to direct."
"I had been a great fan for many years when I had the privilege to film Bob Dylan for The Last Waltz," Scorsese noted. "I've admired and enjoyed his many musical transformations. For me, there is no other musical artist who weaves his influences so densely to create something so personal and unique."

And as America and the world began to fulminate and convulse into a series of political, social and cultural upheavals during the first half of the 1960s, No Direction Home places Dylan and his music squarely at the center. Having inherited both the mantle from Woody Guthrie and the torch from the Beat Generation, and now apotheosizing the collective unconscious, Dylan professed bewilderment with the deification, and his restless quest to grow as an artist clashed with the lofty expectations that the folksinger he had left behind would somehow be revived. A series of press conferences in the film depicts a Dylan at turns apoplectic, jaded, bemused and downright snarly. Not soon after the notorious Manchester concert, Dylan was injured in a motorcycle accident, and he repaired to a retreat in Woodstock, New York, for an extended period of convalescence--a fitting close to an amazing chapter that also marks the end of the film.

For those of you who crave more Dylaniana beyond 1966--The Basement Tapes, the Rolling Thunder Revue Tour, the born-again period, the Never-Ending Tour and the late-period work from Oh Mercy through Time Out of Mind and "Love And Theft"--well, you're gonna have to create your own documentaries.

Thomas White is editor of Documentary. His first epiphany came at age 11, upon listening to "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall."