Since time is money (as if your life was worth its weight in gold), here’s my one paragraph review of this film: it is thrilling, for any dedicated Dylan fan, thanks to the astounding performance footage and the recent interview material with Dylan himself. You don’t want to miss it. That said, it is also not going to deliver any big surprises to anyone who has a well-rounded and well-grounded understanding of his work (though it will surprise the masses who only understand Dylan through his media caricature). So, on a scale of 1-10 measuring “essentialness,” where Dylan’s book Chronicles would rate a “10,” this film would probably rate a “3” – all the hoopla notwithstanding. Of-course there are plenty of things in life which are not essential and yet are a lot of fun. This would certainly be one of them (although the fun might be tinged with annoyance at times). So ends my one paragraph review.
At this point, having watched the film through twice, I have various other thoughts, but they won’t alter the bottom-line given above. And with all the unbelievable reams of stuff being written about this movie, I am curiously unmotivated to add my own tonnage to the pile. And struggling to grasp a single way of tackling the film is giving me a headache. There’s much that could be said, but how much of it is redundant to the knowledgeable and even-keeled readers of this site?
My first time watching it was in stages, due to personal time constraints. As a result, I was quite elated after seeing roughly the first 45 minutes. It seemed Dylan was being allowed to narrate his own story, augmented by illuminating footage added by Scorsese. It was a good model. However, you hear less from Dylan during the middle of the film, and more from those who had and have their own particular agendas. The film bounces back at the end with more stunning concert footage and a disturbing series of clips which convey just how close to the edge Dylan was before the motorcycle accident.
So, how about going at it this way: favorite and unfavorite moments.
Some of my favorites:
John Jacob Niles doing “Go Way From My Window.” This counts as perhaps the one significant thing I learned from the film. Clearly, Dylan engaged in some “love and theft” with Niles’ song and came up with It Ain’t Me Babe. But Niles, who I was not familiar with, seems to be a truly weird and compelling performer who warrants further listening.
Dylan doing Ballad of a Thin Man from the 1966 tour in England – the camera close in on him as he howls the lyrics and pounds the keys, sometimes waving his left arm in the air in the throes of some kind of paroxysm. This and all the performances from that tour are nothing short of stunning, and of-course beg the question as to why they are not shown in their entirety … or issued separately.
Dylan performing Hey Mr. Tambourine Man at Newport in 1964, at the “Topical Song Workshop,” supervised by Pete Seeger. The cahunas it took for Dylan to sing this song in that context are probably unexceeded in many similar moments of artistic confidence later in the film. He has said he didn’t put this song on the Another Side album because he “felt too close” to it. It’s worth remembering, with all the focus that is put on Like A Rolling Stone, that Tambourine Man was every bit as dramatic a departure, albeit not quite as loud.
Dylan, in the present day, reminiscing about the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, and the night they attempted to co-opt him into their scene by giving him an award. His hilarious, “I don’t think so,” is worth whatever price of admission you may have paid.
Dylan performing Maggie’s Farm, Like A Rolling Stone and finally an acoustic It’s All Over Now Baby Blue at Newport in 1965. Everyone always knew what a dramatic moment that was, but to actually see it, after all these years, is something else. It struck me – although Dylan does not say this – that Bob at the time really felt he was putting something to rest there. I think that he thought he was declaring his independence in such uncertain terms that he would no longer be persecuted by those in that audience who wanted him to belong to them. Of-course, if so, he could not have been more wrong, as it turned out.
Dylan in a hotel room in England, learning that someone had phoned in a threat to shoot him. His instant reaction: “I don’t mind being shot, man, but I don’t dig being told about it!”
Bob Johnston, Dylan’s producer for many years, observing that instead of tapping Dylan on the shoulder, God had “kicked him in the ass.” Further, “you only have to look at him to see he’s full of the Holy Spirit!” There are surely many of Johnston’s brash and sincere observations on the cutting room floor, and that’s a shame – especially considering how much self-serving Joan Baez garbage is not on the cutting room floor.
Ah, so that brings me to some of my unfavorite moments.
Uh, Joan Baez. It’s hard to pick the most annoying thing this sanctimonious narcissist says, but it’s probably when she claims Dylan once said something like this to her: “One day all these a******s will be writing about all this s*** I’m writing, and I don’t even know what the f*** it’s about.” Well, Joan wins the contest for gratuitous obscenity – something that has always been notably absent from Dylan’s work and his public speaking. Other than that, it’s just a moronic thing for her to say. Even assuming (and it’s a big assumption) that Dylan said something somewhat like that to her all those years ago, it would obviously have been a moment of self-deprecation and evasiveness – not a statement of truth worthy of being dredged up again 40 years later. Of-course Baez wouldn’t understand that, no more than she understands anything else about Dylan.
Another telling Baez moment is when she’s mourning the fact the he never joined her in political protest (“People at sit-ins always ask me if Dylan’s coming. Don’t you get it, you moron, he NEVER comes”) and then she says, well, nevertheless, he did “give us the the best anti-war songs we have in our arsenal.” Even now, all these years on, she has not advanced one inch. She still looks at those great and timeless songs merely as weapons in a political arsenal. What did Dylan say in Chronicles about his songs’ meanings being “subverted into polemic?”
Speaking of which, we’re treated to at least three instances of the song With God On Our Side being sung during the course of this film. In no instance, however, do you hear the key verse, which makes the song a transcendent one: the verse that asks whether Judas Iscariot had God on his side. People – other than Dylan himself – have been ignoring that verse for decades, and Martin Scorsese duly ignores it too.
More annoyance: Allen Ginsburg (may God rest his soul). Of-course he’s gotta be in this somewhere, but do you have to let him use up so many minutes? A telling moment is when he milks the idea that, on hearing A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, he wept, because he knew “the torch had been passed.” Give me a break. Dylan wasn’t waiting for any torch from Ginsburg or anyone else. And Allen was all of about 38 years old at that time. So eager already to pass the torch and live off of the reputation of Howl? Well: yeah.
It’s notable that now, with the release of this film, Dylan is 64 years old … and no one can name anyone who has wrested any torch out of his hands.
In the end, the greatest flaw of the film is probably how Scorsese gives in to nostalgia (complete with lots of shots of Camelot) rather than devoting the major energy of the film to a more complete look at Dylan’s work of the period.
But, I guess it’s inevitable that the Scorsese generation needed one more chance to grapple with Bob Dylan and glory in all the memories while just barely touching the realities.
As regards what people will draw from this film about Dylan’s politics: I think many will come away with the impression that Dylan insincerely took advantage of the leftist/folk/protest movement in order to gain fame, but didn’t actually mean anything he said in the songs that those people seized upon, and gladly put that aside to pursue bigger things. That, however, would be unfair. The fact is that Dylan wrote and recorded many songs with themes of justice (not owned by the right or left) and the human yearning for a higher truth, and these were gloried in by certain people who were really looking for something much more narrow, and who believed Dylan could give it to them at will. His songs stand up, way beyond the particular leftist causes of the day – and that’s why he continues to sing them. It was not Dylan who stole the opportunity for success from the leftist crowd, but rather they who attempted to divert the golden-egg-laying-goose from the path laid out for him by destiny.
I like the end of the film. After building up the image of Dylan as being under fantastic pressure, in ill health, clearly using chemicals and being harrassed by an insatiable and “stuck-on-stupid” media, Scorsese stops everything and just puts words up on the screen, stating blandly that a few days after returning from touring, Dylan was in a motorcycle accident.
Then, in silence, we see a long line of people, standing in the rain, the camera following block after block of seemingly grim crowds. Of-course we know, since we know the story, that they are not in line for Dylan’s wake – but we’re reminded that this is how the story has ended for others and surely how it came close to ending for Dylan. Instead, we’re treated to another moment from the tour: the version of Like A Rolling Stone where someone shouts “Judas.” Inexplicably to me, we lose the pictures of this performance after about a minute in favor of the closing credits.
Of-course this ending also reminds us that it was not the end for Dylan. The story of Dylan’s next stage would also be fascinating. And the other stages. How about, for comparison’s sake to the 1966 tour with all its booing, we saw the 1979 and 1980 Dylan, again confronting a loud section of his audience? Where they had always wanted him to tell them the news, and give them a message, now he was standing up and finally doing just that – and being rejected and accused for doing so.
So, why end at 1966, indeed? That’s a question that I don’t see a good answer for, unless it has something to do with this being the end of a certain generation’s heyday. And, more accurately, the end of hope that Dylan really would be their own brand of Messiah.
All that aside, I’ll no doubt be picking out my favorite moments and watching them again and again for many years to come. There will probably be more to say about the reaction of other commentators to this film, but … what was that again? Oh yeah: time is money.
You can’t take it with you and you know that it’s too worthless to be sold,
They tell you, “Time is money” as if your life was worth its weight in gold.
When you gonna wake up, when you gonna wake up
When you gonna wake up and strengthen the things that remain?