Scorsese’s, No Direction Home is such a striking piece of cinematography. It is the first movie or documentary that emphasises Dylan’s protest genre. Dont Look Back, Eat the Document, Renaldo and Clara and other documentaries tangentially or frankly ignored this component of his music. Admittedly D. A. Pennebaker’s great film, Dont Look Back, introduces, even if tangentially, elements of protest but the portrait is of Dylan as a rebel interviewee, an iconoclastic personality and somewhat less a social activist.
Not this time. This brilliant film takes us to Greenwood, Mississippi as did Dont Look Back but shows us more footage of the Ed Emshwiller videography (he had sent his to Pennebaker who used it in Dont) with Pete Seeger as well as Dylan. The film shows us apartheid at the University of Mississippi during the James Meredith desegregation battles (“Oxford Town”). The film is riveting in its footage of violence against African-Americans (“Blowin’ in the Wind”). The movie shows scenes of hysterical Americans “ducking and covering” to avoid nuclear apocalypse (“Let Me Die in My Footsteps,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Talkin’ World War III Blues.”)
It features Dylan’s “Only A Pawn in Their Game” as well that evokes the assassination of Medgar Evers, the N.A.A.C.P. leader in Mississippi. Scorsese devotes more coverage of Dylan’s campaign against racialism than any previous film or documentary. This is its greatness in my estimation and possibly the sole reason for its immediate classic status.
Earlier in the day, I told my class (see post below) about the Guthrie-Dylan connection. I admit I felt some satisfaction with the film’s repeated allusion to this. It also showed the cover of Bound for Glory, Guthrie’s great autobiography, which my class is currently reading. Dylan credits the importance of that work to his immersion into the Guthrie legend. I had played in class Dylan’s “Only A Hobo” and Woody’s “Hard Travelin’” and asked my students to compare the imagery and analytical mood of depicting poverty and misery. The film shows Dylan, ever the narrator in shadow, wearing that black leather jacket, extolling the virtues of Woody, his indebtedness to his music, and his determination to play and disseminate the Oklahoman’s nearly forgotten oeuvre.
Scorsese shows a clip where Dylan says he is from, or grew up after Minnesota birthing in Gallup, New Mexico. The producer might have indicated that Dylan fantasised about being something other than himself and frequently invented biography to emulate the wandering Woody. Hearing Dylan sing, no video, “This Land is Your Land” and “Song to Woody” were evocative punctuations of the protégé’s adoration of his hobo saint. Clearly Guthrie passed the baton to Dylan or perhaps Dylan grabbed the baton from Woody. Who will from Dylan? Probably nobody but with the multidimensionality of technology and the dissemination of multimedia, Dylan may not need a baton passing. His music will be the baton for generations of progressive Americans seeking to transform this misbegotten and ethnocentric land of violence and hate and war.
I was surprised and delighted with the spacious coverage of Bob Dylan, (1962) his first album. This was to be the first of three basic covering albums (Good as I Been to You; World Gone Wrong) and I had never known there was video of his recording sessions. Good for Scorsese. He went with a rather underrated album, with minimal sales and introduced his audience to a non-iconic album. I imagine the album may now sell more sides than it did in 1962. Yet buried in the covers were Dylan’s first original releases: “Song to Woody” and “Talking New York.” Also the video of Newport ’63 from Murray Lerner’s Festival: Newport 1963-1965 I imagine had been seen by very few aficionados. Newport ’63 was the poet’s first appearance there and tonight we will see the epic Newport ‘65 event.
Dont Look Back is always misspelled Don’t Look Back. Even so-called Dylanologists and film critics misspell the title. Don’t change Dont to be grammatically correct. Be accurate and be willing like Dylan to oppose the conventionality and the canon: remember by accepting the status quo, justice, originality, creativity, peace and racial equality will never come to this sorry land.