Churchill described Russia as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. The same can rightfully be said, without any hint of exaggeration, about Bob Dylan. Nobody has or ever will understand him, and that’s the source of our fascination with him as a songwriter, performer, and era-defining legend. This man was completely elusive before No Direction Home, and by the end of its sprawling, three and a half hour account of his life in the early 60s, we are left only slightly the wiser. All the documentary does is predominantly to increase the intrigue tenfold, by showing us more than we could possibly wish for if we wanted to be anymore in awe of this man than we already were.
We learn some things. Through archive press footage, it becomes clear that after three years of soaking up the pressure of leadership from the folk scene at the age of around twenty, he simply became sick of being asked what the meaning was of things like the rain in ‘A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall.’ He’s constantly asked a question throughout along the lines of whether he should be the leader of ‘singers with a message,’ and the pretentiousness and presumption that he’s interested in all things political ultimately drives him towards senility. Going electric, turning to rock and roll, becoming ‘Judas,’ – however you want to put it – was clearly the ultimate transition from acoustic guitar-twanging tunes about war and peace (however incredible `Blowin’ In The Wind’ was), through the dreamy lyrics of `Mr. Tambourine Man’, to a type of music in which he was free to write and sound however he liked, and the products were Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde – two colossal achievements, which changed music forever and were released in the space of merely one year.
It is quite incredible. A lot of what we see is warfare – not of the Vietnamese sort he sung about for so long, but between himself and British crowds, as he toured England for months on end, playing loud, angry music to disheartened but devoted fans who derided him as a fake and either walked out, or stayed around to boo him off at the end. There is nothing like this which we can nowadays draw parallels to – if musicians are no longer popular, they disappear. To imagine fans buying tickets to concerts merely to voice their dissent is to imagine a world which no longer exists, because we don’t have anyone that achieves levels of audience commitment quite like Dylan did.
What’s left unexplained, probably because it is inherently inexplicable, is what made this incredible mind. Dylan came from a bog-standard tiny town in rural Minnesota, spent his school years listening to the likes of Odetta and Woody Guthrie on the radio, and soon headed to New York’s Greenwich Village where he made a name for himself. From the outside, it’s that simple, and there’s nothing more we can observe. We listen to his first girlfriend – Suze Rotolo, from the Freewheelin’ cover – tell us what he was like, along with dozens of memories and stories retold by the Beatnik poet Allen Ginsberg, fellow folk ‘leader’ Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, producer Bob Johnston and many, many others. Even Dylan himself seems uncharacteristically straightforward in his old age, as he recalls what his younger self, in what might as well be a past life, was like. But ultimately Scorsese can only finish with footage of Dylan telling his band to ‘play it fuckin’ loud,’ leaving us in the knowledge of how much we owe to his man, who made sure music was never the same again.