Published in the TLS July 2006

Bob Dylan, master “shape-shifter” as Irish singer Liam Clancy dubs him in Martin Scorsese’s “No Direction Home”, was bound to be a recalcitrant subject, even in this authorised and long-awaited portrait. He is very present, parched skin and all, throughout the three and a half hour-long documentary, shot in chiaroscuro close-up. But the apparent intimacy, styled with an ersatz Rembrandt look, is ultimately deceptive: yet another in this consummate trickster’s many masks and defences against excessive disclosure.

Although his contributions, shot in 2000, to questions from his manager Jeff Rosen, have a near-oracular fascination which comes from Dylan having cultivated an almost icy distance for so long, his soft-spoken, often wry statements don’t reveal quite as much as the still extraordinary footage shot by the brilliant documentarian D. A. Pennebaker 40 or so years ago, and generously quoted in the present portrait. Not that Dylan didn’t learn very fast how to play to the camera back then, as Pennebaker explains in Scorsese’s film: “he saw that it was total theatre…he had re-invented himself as an actor within the movie”.

The film focuses primarily on the close to miraculous way in which Dylan surfed the wave of political and cultural change of the early 60’s, being totally in it, and yet never quite of it. Scorsese also follows closely the way in which Bob Dylan transformed American popular music by drawing on a very wide range of musical and literary sources to create works of unequalled genius. And yet the idea of Dylan as “masked and anonymous” (the title of the recent feature film he was involved in) or “song and dance man” – a term used perceptively by the British writer and Dylanologist Michael Gray – runs deeply through the film, and provides one of the rare psychological keys in a portrait that delivers superlative music, and fascinating social history, rather than deep character study. As a kid in the cultural desert of the far-Northern Midwest, Dylan (still Robert Zimmerman then) had been captivated by the world of circus and carnival. The images of black-faced George Washingtons and Napoleons, and “weird Shakespearean stuff that didn’t make sense at the time” still haunt him, and must have enriched his imagination. There is also the sharp memory of seeing the man who operated the Ferris wheel putting on make-up as he switched shifts and roles at the fair: “I thought this was very interesting, the guy doing two things” – a small-time shape-shifter as early role model, and a beckoning alternative to “the discipline of hard work and the merits of employment” which Dylan scathingly identifies as the mainstays of his hometown’s culture. No surprise perhaps that he changed names, invented a variety of histories for himself, stole a friend’s best blues records.

The second half of “No Direction Home” describes the way in which Dylan drew together the slow-burning sex and voodoo of the blues, the raw and edgy excitement of rock’n’roll, and the ethics and story-telling of the Scots-Irish folk tradition. All of this assisted by a poet’s innate fluency with images, and an uncanny empathy with the political and social Zeitgeist.  American popular music was changed for ever by albums like “Bringing It All Back Home” and “Highway 61”; pop could be poetic, as well as grab us with strong hooks.  Hypnotically-long tracks like “Desolation Row”, with each verse more astonishing than the last, made us all wonder, back then, just where Dylan was hanging out.  The crossroads at which Dylan thrived is recognised in many cultures as a dangerous place: this is where one of Dylan’s heroes, Delta bluesman Robert Johnson, was supposed to have learned (from the devil) the ‘tricks’ that would shape black and white music for generations to come. The crossroads is also the place where Hermes hovers, as well as the Yoruba trickster Elegba, both of them helpful figures when considering Dylan’s creative genius and capacity for survival.  The fiery force of inspiration which pours in at such unprotected places is surely one of the factors contributing to the self-immolation of ground-breaking musicians such as Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison.  In Dylan’s case there was only a motorcycle accident.

In contrast to the well-documented casualties of rock, Dylan instinctively knew how to use a succession of masks as techniques that enabled him to be wildly adventurous while remaining open and vulnerable.  The ‘playing’ is the thing. Avid as we may all be for psychological insight and personal revelations, the Dylan of “No Direction Home” remains something of an enigma, more accessible via the imagery of his lyrics and the surprises that lurk in his highly original autobiographical “Chronicles”.

The footage shot by Pennebaker during Dylan’s 1966 tour, used liberally in Scorsese’s portrait, shows very clearly the man’s fragility during the bold but risky moves from mostly political protest and folk to more personal and poetic electric blues.  Curiously, while it is evident in the film that Dylan is taking drugs throughout this period, no mention is made of the role that hallucinogenics and other mind-altering substances clearly had in facilitating the fundamental change of consciousness that various contributors allude to in the film. Is hip hagiography beyond making it explicit because this was so evidently a part of the scene, or – more likely – has there been an effort to placate the moral majority?

The film is probably too long, although, after all these years, Dylan fans will savour every moment of it. It is also full of witty and perceptive contributions from his contemporaries. The music is as fresh as it was 40 years ago, kept vibrant by the knife-edge risk-courting that Dylan plays at with such apparent ease.