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A young Dylan lights a cigarette

The American Masters doc zeroes in on the early, iconic years of the folk singer's career, fleshed out with recent interviews. (Photo: Jim Marshall, 1963.)
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Scorsese and Dylan waltz again for PBS

Originally published in Current July 25, 2005
By Karen Everhart

He is regarded as a musical genius, a spokesperson for his generation and an artist who blends folk traditions with poetry to inspire people to social awareness and political action.

But as Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home: Bob Dylan will make clear in its debut on public TV Sept. 26 and 27, the awkward Midwesterner who journeyed to New York City in 1961 to find his idol Woody Guthrie soon realized he wanted none of these labels. He just wanted to make his own music and not be boxed in by others’ expectations.

"I didn’t know the song was good or bad or that it had an anthemic quality or anything, I just wrote the song to perform the song,” Dylan says, referring to “Blowin’ in the Wind,” his first breakthrough hit.

"I think of myself as a song-and-dance man,” he says.

The three-and-a-half-hour American Masters documentary covers the phenomenal early years of Dylan’s career, 1961 to 1966 — the part with the richest filmed record in his archives. There are no plans at this time for sequels covering later years, according to series spokesperson Lisa Batchelder.

Director Scorsese presents Dylan’s controversial 1965 decision to “go electric” in the context of a fast-changing and frustrating period that left many young people flailing in outrage. Folkies intent on social change couldn’t abide a shift of musical style by their favorite troubadour.

"I think he’s prostituted himself,” says a British fan leaving a performance in 1966.

Dylan performing in studio with dark glasses and electric guitar. Dylan goes electric, 1965. (Photo: Sony.)

"They’re booing and I can’t stand it,” Dylan says to band mates as they’re chauffeured away from an English concert hall. “It’s hard to get in tune when they’re booing.”

The film concludes in 1966 as Dylan shuts himself off from the public and stops touring for eight years.

Today Dylan is performing and writing new music, and he recently penned a bestselling memoir. Yet he has remained inscrutable and elusive to his fans. With No Direction Home, they’ll have some new insights into Dylan’s behavior.

All these years later, viewers learn he’s a funny, likable person who doesn’t take it all so seriously.

No Direction Home may turn out to be the only film project to have access to the artist’s closely guarded archives and videotaped interviews about his career.

Viewers unfamiliar with the artist’s early work may wonder why Scorsese keeps returning to the 1966 tour, which was marked by mutual animosity between Dylan and those who loved his earlier acoustic music, but fans will revel in the legendary moments brought to screen and the musician’s recollections of them.

The clips feature not just Dylan but also the many musicians who influenced him — Woody Guthrie, Gene Vincent, Hank Williams, John Jacob Niles, Odetta and Johnny Cash, among many others. As Dylan follows his muse, traditional American music evolves into an alluring mix of the intellectual, sexual and cool. In the five years covered in the film, the pudgy Minnesotan in a fisherman’s cap — a guy who palpably wants recognition — transforms himself into a chain-smoking, stylish, bad-ass hipster who’s had enough of fame.

Finally, Bob was ready

No Direction Home is a dream come true for Susan Lacy, creator and executive producer of American Masters at WNET, New York. Every month for years on end, Lacy recalls, she phoned Dylan’s manager to suggest it was time for his biography on PBS. Each time, Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s long time associate and curator of his archive, would say, “Bob’s not ready.”

"Just because you want to make a film about someone, it doesn’t mean that you can do it,” she says. “To make a film about Dylan with any performances in it, you need his blessing.” She rejects any assumptions that No Direction Home is an airbrushed authorized biography. “It’s only authorized to the extent that we received his blessing.”

"I hate the word ‘authorized,’” Lacy says. “It implies that there’s a shoulder being looked over and that’s not happening at all.”

Dylan’s assent came in 2001—through Rosen, who is credited as a producer on the documentary for Dylan’s company, Grey Water Park Productions. Rosen interviewed Dylan extensively, as well as friends and other artists, and gave the footage to the producers. Included were 10 hours of video interviews and 20 hours of audio with Dylan. Filmmakers drew from the artist’s personal archives—film, audio, still photographs, handwritten lyrics—and acquired historical footage to set the context of the times—the bohemia of Greenwich Village, the Kennedy White House, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.

"In seeking out a filmmaker of Martin Scorsese’s stature, [Dylan] thereby allowed another artist to approach the subject and to give us his authored view of the story,” says Nigel Sinclair, a partner in Spitfire Productions, during a session at the Television Critics Association Press Tour in January. His company had a major role in the co-production of No Direction Home.

"I’m trying to make as honest a film as possible without unnecessary restrictions,” says Scorsese, who also appeared at the January press tour. “Of course, I’m on his side, so I might come out in terms of pro-Dylan.” The artist’s management gave full editorial control to Scorsese and imposed no restrictions, he says.

"This is very much Martin’s picture, very much his vision,” says Lacy. “He was hands-on all the way. It’s one great artist looking at another great artist.”

Scorsese worked with Dylan on the 1978 performance-centered film The Last Waltz, and Sinclair produced Masked and Anonymous, a 2002 feature film starring Dylan, Jeff Bridges and others. Lacy and Anthony Wall of BBC also are listed as producers on No Direction Home.

The co-production deal that made the film possible was enormously complicated and took a long time to put together, according to Lacy. Broadcast rights were pre-sold to BBC and Japan’s NHK. Paramount acquired rights to publish the DVD and sell the documentary in additional foreign markets, she says. Vulcan Productions, which co-produced Scorsese’s The Blues with WGBH, holds secondary cable rights.

As a major producer, WNET gets a share of DVD proceeds, but many other products will spin off from the film. Sony will release a soundtrack on Aug. 30 that includes previously unreleased live and private recordings. Simon & Shuster will publish a “scrapbook” of rare photographs, documents, reproduced memorabilia and a CD, and the first volume of Dylan’s memoirs, Chronicles, will be released in paperback. Starbucks will feature and sell the CD. Apple, the corporate underwriter of the PBS broadcast, is also presenter of the DVD and international versions of the film.

No Direction Home launches PBS’s fall season, and programmers have scheduled it with what they call a “leapfrog” strategy that uses heavy cross-promotion to bring viewers to other PBS programs following similar themes [separate story below]. A major promotional push of No Direction Home will “kick up a lot of dust and noise” to bring viewers to PBS, says John Wilson, PBS programming co-chief. Promos will entice viewers to stay tuned for specials about the Beatles, the history of protest music and the ’60s.

PBS first tried the leapfrog strategy with the fall 2004 debut of Broadway: An American Musical but had to use repeats of programs less pertinent to the centerpiece program. Nevertheless, an American Experience program about the stock market crash of 1929 and a Nature film about an eagle nesting on a New York City high-rise drew bigger audiences as repeats than when they debuted.

Plan: invite leapfroggers
to see more

With its “leapfrog” strategy conceived to bring more viewers bounding into the pubTV audience, PBS has scheduled several 1960s look-backs around the American Masters Dylan film on Sept. 26-27.

Antiques Roadshow “Tomorrow’s Antiques”: Monday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. This nostalgic special edition of PBS’s most popular primetime series will showcase collectibles from the rockin’ ’50s to the swinging ’70s, including a 1955 Dodgers World Series baseball, a paper Campbell’s Soup dress and a costume worn by Elvis Presley.

Best of the Beatles: Wednesday and Thursday, Sept. 28-29, 8 p.m. Pete Best, the Beatles drummer superseded by Ringo Starr, lays out everything that went wrong for him just as the Beatles rose to international fame.

Get Up, Stand Up: The Story of Pop and Protest: Wednesday, Sept. 28, 9 p.m. Rapper Chuck D narrates a two-hour doc examining how popular music influenced 20th-century political movements, in the black community and elsewhere—campaigning for civil rights and raising funds to ease suffering, right up to this summer’s worldwide concert series Live 8. The film weaves music with historical footage and commentary from musicians and critics.

Chuck D, lead rapper of Public Enemy, promoted the show and PBS at the Television Critics Association press tour. “PBS is my favorite network,” he told the TV critics July 13, while dissing cable nets owned by Viacom, according to transcripts of the session. “MTV— you spell E-M-P-T-Y-V. And they turned BET into the bootie and thug network,” Chuck D said. “BET is such a bad mark on black folks in this country.”

PBS helps people see through the Big Brother elements of big media conglomerates, he added. “PBS and Viacom are diametrically opposed, and we need to figure out more ways to get the documentaries and public broadcasts into the schools and into society . . . to be able to have people not turn into robots,” Chuck D said.

The Sixties: The Years that Shaped a Generation: Thursday, Sept. 29, 9 p.m. This two-hour documentary examines one of the most turbulent periods of political and cultural change during the 20th century. It features interviews with Barbara Ehrenreich, Daniel Ellsberg, Jesse Jackson, Tom Hayden, Arlo Guthrie, Henry Kissinger, Norman Mailer, Robert McNamara, Edwin Meese III and Bobby Seale.

Later this fall, PBS has another treat for boomer-era rock fans, the two-hour Cream Reunion Concert presented by Great Performances on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 9 p.m. The band — Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce — blended blues and psychedelic rock, to produce a string of classics. The program captures their May 2005 reunion concerts in London’s Royal Albert Hall. The trio now plans to perform in New York’s Madison Square Garden in October, Billboard reported last week. A stateside reunion could give a promotional boost to the PBS broadcast as well as the December pledge drive.

Web page posted July 27, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Current Publishing Committee

EARLIER ARTICLES

American Masters has built a franchise for bio profiles distinct from A&E's crowd-pleaser Biography.

Scorsese oversaw the seven-part PBS series The Blues in 2003.

LINKS

The film about Dylan is intimate, tender and raw, writes a critic for the Toronto Globe & Mail.

The phrase "With no direction home" comes from the last verse of Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone."

Who's profiled in American Masters this season?

In July, Dylan's son Jakob appeared on another PBS series, Soundstage.

Dylan interviewed about his memoir Chronicles on Morning Edition, October 2004.

 

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