Scorsese, PBS at `Home' with Dylan

Fall TV Preview

September 26, 2005|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,[sun television critic]

The measure of the greatness of No Direction Home -- Martin Scorsese's impressionistic two-night portrait of Bob Dylan as a young man -- is how much the director's grand aspiration is realized in a film that feels more like a poem than a TV documentary.

A less ambitious biographer might have been content to tell viewers that Dylan captured the times in which he lived better than any other popular artist of his era, and leave it at that -- plus or minus stock archival images of social protest and bits of Dylan's most widely known songs. But Scorsese actually re-creates the excitement, contradictions and craziness of the times as a backdrop against which viewers can start to appreciate Dylan's Promethean effort of capturing the cultural lightning of the 1960s in his music, sense of theater, and life.

No Direction Home is not just another two nights in front of the tube. Even by the standards of PBS' American Masters -- the medium's finest biography series ever -- Scorsese's film is 3 1/2 hours of breathing air so rarefied compared to most television that it feels as if one is inhaling helium.

The documentary opens and closes as a concert film. Dylan is on tour with guitarist Robbie Robertson and the other musicians that would come to be known as The Band, a watershed musical group lucky enough to have its farewell concert preserved for the ages by Scorsese in his classic 1978 film, The Last Waltz.

The time and place: Manchester, England, 1966. Dylan and the band members tear into "Like a Rolling Stone," but instead of a roar from the crowd at the Dylan song that seemed to be playing everywhere that year, what one hears over the electronic distortion of the instruments is the sound of boos.

Dylan, the crown prince of American folk music, had set off a firestorm of criticism and debate when he "went electric" at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival -- performing with a rock/blues band instead of acoustic guitar and harmonica. The opening concert sequence perfectly captures him reaping the whirlwind of his artistic evolution with concertgoers screaming "traitor" and "sellout" as he takes the stage in Manchester.

It is then that Scorsese quickly cuts back to Hibbing, Minn., and Dylan's childhood in the 1950s. What follows is a portrait of the artist as an extremely alienated young man. The images are consistently bleak, and Scorsese seems as intent on quickly getting through the period as Dylan was in moving away after high school graduation from the world that knew him as Robert Zimmerman.

Still, there are some fine biographical touches: a recording of Dylan's screechy adolescent voice, a teacher from Hibbing High recounting Dylan's disastrous debut at the school's talent show, and testimony from former classmates and friends of Dylan stealing their LP music albums and occasionally trying to pass himself off as a singer from North Dakota named Tommy Vee who had a modest regional hit in the 1950s.

Dylan himself gives a keen sense of his alienation and confusion in those years: "Sometimes [while listening to country music and bluegrass songs], I thought I was somebody else -- like I might have been born to the wrong parents or something."

One thing is clear: He wanted to be somebody other than who he was, and that somebody was a singer.

Dylan's life catches artistic fire when he arrives in New York City in 1961 and starts appearing at such now-legendary venues as the Cafe Wha? and Gerde's Folk City. Scorsese slows the pace, allowing viewers to savor the remarkably fertile cultural brew of Greenwich Village in the early 1960s.

Dylan found a temporary haven, and Part 1 of the film sticks with his days in the bosom of the New York folk scene. It ends on closing night of the 1963 Newport Folk Festival with Dylan singing "Blowin' in the Wind."

Pete Seeger, Odetta and the Freedom Singers stand onstage linked arm in arm with him. It is a deeply moving tableau of the passing of the torch of American folk music to the 23-year-old songwriter, as well as a poignant reminder of how attainable racial harmony seemed to some in those days.

Part 2, tomorrow night, follows Dylan down a harder road as he chases his electronic muse around the world. The pace quickens and the tone darkens as the film throbs to the beat of one-night stands, confrontational new conferences, and backstage moments with an artist becoming more and more angry and withdrawn until he decides to leave the stage in 1966.

PBS is targeting baby boomers with No Direction Home and a week of other less inspired documentaries on rock music, protest and the 1960s. Scorsese's film more than makes up for the deficiencies in the others.

But boomers be warned: There are moments in the film -- striking still photographs, movingly told anecdotes, juxtapositions of dream-like images and Dylan songs -- so evocative that they will put a catch in your throat (or tears in your eyes) at the melancholy memory of how intoxicating it was to come of age within one of the most dazzling and mad zeitgeists in American history. No Direction Home is as much about a generation and an artistic paradise lost in American life as it is about Bob Dylan.

On TV "No Direction Home" airs at 9 tonight and tomorrow on MPT (Channels 22, 67).

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