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September 30, 2005

Scorsese leads the way Home with captivating Dylan bio

How did the pedestrian Robert Zimmerman become the poetic Bob Dylan? Legendary film director Martin Scorsese examines the progression of one enigmatic soul from ordinary to extraordinary. His 207-minute film, No Direction Home, documents the folk hero's life from his birth in 1941 until the apex of his artistic and commercial success in 1966. Scorsese captures the itinerant troubadour that lies beneath the rockstar façade through numerous interviews with those who knew and loved him. Those people include Dave Von Ronk, Liam Clancy, Maria Muldaur, Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, and Pete Seeger, to name a few.

Original footage of the musician himself offers a unique look into the artist as a young man. The film explores Dylan's state of mind rather than specific moments in his life. For example, Dylan seems to care little that many folk-music purists were enraged when he electrified the medium. His independence is illustrated once again when he seems unwilling to be hijacked by the left for political gain.

As a young boy, Robert Zimmerman let the music of Odetta, Leadbelly, Hank Williams, and Johnny Cash were essential parts of his musical schooling. The world of Kerouac and Ferlinghetti were principal parts in his verbal lineage. Woody Guthrie, socialist folk hero, remained the most lasting influence on the young Dylan. Through channeling his hero, Dylan seemed the likely heir to his idol. But while Dylan loved Guthrie, he wanted to do his own songs and be known for being himself—not simply an imitation of a folk legend.

Dylan lived through political and social upheaval during the height of his powers. He is still touched when he recalls performing for Martin Luther King, Jr. at the March on Washington in 1963. Nevertheless, he never wanted to be nor did he believe that he was the voice of a generation. Being the voice of one man was enough for him.

Dylan, like many complex characters, had a somewhat contentious relationship with his fans. He would not be anybody's "left-wing servant." As Dylan says in one of his most lyrical, mature songs, "It's All Right, Ma: I'm Only Bleedin'": "It is not he or she or them or it that you belong to."

The film clearly illustrates the break between Dylan's folk past and rock future when he controversially "electrified" his songs. Despite his many transformations, the words Dylan uttered continued to speak to the audience. His poor singing skills were always on full display. But the crowd seemed hungry for poetry, and his mass appeal may have been lost on a better singer. The rawness and purity of Dylan is one thing that Scorsese illustrates beautifully. Dylan's words transcend the music, making the coarseness of his voice and the simplicity of his guitar integral to his art.

Scorsese's success lies in his absence. The director lets Dylan jump off the screen, and Scorsese simply serves as a vehicle to spread the musician's gospel. The onstage footage places the viewer inside Dylan's microphone and gives him a full access to one of the most enigmatic and influential artists of the 20th century. Dylan is a poet who has never been controlled by others, let alone any specific topic or message. His only master is the English language, which he controls much better than his peers.

At times, Dylan seems bothered that so many other bands scored hits off his own poetic brilliance. Scorsese gives us a rare taste of the intimate Dylan. His songs not only serve as a soundtrack for No Direction Home, but also as a score for his own life. No matter how many musicians continue to cover his music, Dylan has achieved something few ever attain: musical immortality. His genius has moved him into a realm occupied by another 20th century immortal and Dylan-like chameleon, Miles Davis. While Dylan seems careful these days about protecting his legacy, he need not worry. His legacy is firmly planted in his words and songs that can never die.

Dylan was thrust upon the stage at such a young age and did not ask to represent any cultural ideals. He was so prolific and so wise so quickly that even the elder Dylan cannot believe some of the songs he was able to write at a young age. What he lacked in experience, he made up for in lyrical vitality and a genius that has never been challenged. The treasure he has given us makes him our rambling Shakespeare. He always stayed true to himself and never felt possessed to please any specific group. Dylan, in all his mystery and complexity, becomes the ultimate character sketch for a director who has never shied away from tackling a difficult persona. Scorsese shows the brilliance of Dylan with a mind that has given us Raging Bull's Jake La Motta and Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle. The director demonstrates his skill by mastering a documentary with an ideal subject.

Many of his fans were distressed when he moved away from politically consciousness music, but Dylan quickly responds to these attacks. He says that musicians must "constantly be in a state of becoming." He remains real, raw, and always true to himself. No Direction Home truly captures Dylan in his most glorious years. At a concert in London in the '60s, one British heckler yelled, "What happened to Woody Guthrie, Bob?" To answer this man with brevity the artist himself would appreciate: "Bob Dylan happened."