Wednesday, October 12, 2005

A Belated Post on No Direction Home

I just never got around to writing up what I was planning on Scorsese's No Direction Home, about Bob Dylan, that played on PBS 2 weeks ago. In the blogosphere, 2 weeks is an eternity. For a historian, it's like the second before last.

Overall, I thought this was a solid documentary. However, the less you knew about Dylan before the documentary, the better it probably was for you. Scorsese and the other filmmakers really skated around the bad parts of Dylan. They didn't talk to Ramblin' Jack Elliott and that's a problem because Dylan fucked Jack over like no one's business. Throughout his whole time in New York, Dylan used people up and spit them out when he was done with them. Jack was Dylan's connection to Woody Guthrie. Jack was the first big Woody fan who went on the road playing those songs after Woody stopped. Jack taught Dylan a tremendous amount about music and the history behind that music. Once Dylan had learned those tunes and got to meet Dylan for himself, he left Jack in his dust. Of course, Dylan is a far greater artist that Jack Elliott. Elliott has written about 5 songs in his life. But when Woody Guthrie died in 1967, Dylan organized a tribute show. He left Jack off the program. Jack was able to get his way on through other means but that was just a slap in the face to his old mentor and friend.

The most you got about Dylan being an asshole was from Joan Baez who talked about Dylan leaving her backstage in Europe instead of inviting her to play with him and from Dave Van Ronk who told the story of Dylan stealing his version of "House of the Rising Sun" for an early recording. Dylan did this kind of thing all the time and the hero worship that came through in the documentary did little to give a complete picture of the man's dark side.

Some mention of Dylan's speed use during the entire time of the documentary could have provided a more complete picture as well. I'm not sure that it was absolutely necessary to discuss this, but again, it would have provided a more complete picture of the man.

What was really interesting about the documentary to me was how ultimately unsatisfying 3 1/2 hours were. For as much of an asshole as Bob Dylan can be, most of that 3 1/2 hours was riveting and it left me wanting more. Some discussion of the 70s and 80s might have been most enlightening, particularly his weird move to Christianity in the late 70s, the making of his greatest album, Blood on the Tracks, and the absolute shit that he put out in the 1980s.

Bob Dylan is no doubt one of the greatest musical artists of the 20th century. I think No Direction Home is far from the final word on Dylan. But even with its flaws, it still provided a fascinating look on a great musician and quite disturbing individual. I only wish it would have focused a little more on the second part of that.