- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 22, 2005

The last time Martin Scorsese passed through the home office of the Public Broadcasting Service, he had a blues obsession that resulted in 2003’s maddeningly scattershot seven-part miniseries “Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: A Musical Journey.” The director’s contribution to PBS’ “American Masters” series, “No Direction Home: Bob Dylan,” clocks in at nearly four hours but maintains a laserlike focus on a figure as enigmatic as he is iconic.

This time, Mr. Scorsese gets it right: The man himself, still inscrutably cagey and self-effacing; the era and how Mr. Dylan fit in and transcended it; and most important, the music, which is played at length here in all its eccentric grandeur and beauty. The archival performances are revelatory, as are the in-depth portraits of the recording sessions for the watershed 1965 albums “Bringing It All Back Home” and “Highway 61 Revisited.”

Following Mr. Dylan’s own memoir “Chronicles,” “Home” paints a picture of a reluctant cultural hero and a rootless self-inventor. With not a note of nostalgia or filial affection, Mr. Dylan recalls his rise from 1940s-era Hibbing, Minn., a small town with an all-too-typical main street and an iron range encroaching on its outskirts — a town where, Mr. Dylan says amusingly, it “was too cold to be bad.”

Young Robert Allen Zimmerman felt like he was born to the wrong parents in the wrong era in the wrong place — felt, coldly, that he “had no past.” So it was off to New York City’s Greenwich Village, with its folk music scene and leftist political milieu both in full blossom.

The Midwestern transplant, 21, with a cache of obscure stolen vinyl records, went on what he calls a “musical expedition.” He began soaking up American roots music and Beat literature, assumed a poetic new identity, made a pilgrimage to find an ailing Woody Guthrie and soon became the public Bob Dylan. Until it was time to become the next Bob Dylan … and then the next.

“No Direction Home” stops short at the year 1966 — rather like a recent biopic about Pope John Paul II concluded before his papacy began. But by that time Mr. Dylan had controversially discarded the Dust Bowl-militant persona for which he initially became famous and temporarily exhausted the experimental energy that led him to pick up an electric guitar and play blues-rock music with a band (the Band, as it happened).

Mr. Dylan was burned out by grueling inspections by the press and cries of “sellout” from American and British fans (how pretentiously silly it seems in Mr. Scorsese’s rearview mirror) and other demands on his soul.

Mr. Scorsese interjects himself only to read a speech Mr. Dylan gave to the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee in 1963, the one during which Mr. Dylan was probably drunk, and fixing to frustrate expectations of a popular messiah.

A lively cast of present-day commentators, including a beery, boisterous Liam Clancy, a surprisingly charming Joan Baez and the ever-earnest Pete Seeger, tell of a similar frustration felt by Mr. Dylan’s peers, who found the man “hopelessly politically naive” (in the words of one ex-Greenwich Village scenester) and stubbornly resistant to activism. When asked at various sit-ins and protests whether Mr. Dylan would appear, Miss Baez recalls saying, “He never comes, you moron.”

Were Mr. Dylan’s disciples themselves naive for making Mr. Dylan the “voice” of their generation? Were they, well, morons for thinking that “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” might be about nuclear fallout? Or did Mr. Dylan drop his political cloak when he found that it no longer suited his creative temperament?

Mr. Dylan explains today that he saw simple human need in the early ‘60s civil rights confrontations: “Being on the side of people who are struggling doesn’t necessarily mean you’re being political.”

Mr. Dylan’s son, Jakob Dylan, has agreed with speculation that his father exaggerated the injuries he suffered in a motorcycle accident outside his home in Woodstock, N.Y., as a pretext for escaping public scrutiny. It worked: Mr. Dylan quit performing for a time and has only recently begun to surface from decades of virtual seclusion — a seclusion he has maintained despite incessant touring for the last 20 years.

As mysterious and reclusive as he seems, however, he is easily the most active performer of his generation. To use a local example, Mr. Dylan has appeared in the Washington area five times in the last four years, including on a college campus and in two suburban minor-league baseball parks.

He is at once unknowable and compulsively accessible. This is perhaps the most revealing Bob Dylan paradox.

WHAT: “No Direction Home: Bob Dylan”

WHEN: Monday and Tuesday nights at 9 on WETA TV Channel 26; at 8 on Howard University Television Channel 32

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide