After 40 years of cryptic comments, evasive answers and the occasional self-imposed exile, the mystery of Bob Dylan’s public persona is extensively explored in Martin Scorsese’s documentary, “No Direction Home.” The filmic texts chronicling Dylan’s progression from unknown folk ruffian to the voice of a generation to rock’s inscrutable-yet-magnetic pioneer-poet were previously limited to two documentaries: D.A. Pennebaker’s “Dont Look Back” (sic) and “Eat the Document.” Both films show Dylan on tour in Britain, the former in 1965 and the latter a year later; both show him in transition, his music becoming more and more disjunct from the sounds and ideas that his supposedly progressive fans had come to expect. By 1966, fans didn’t just misunderstand Dylan – they booed the singer’s new material.

Scorsese uses bits of media – that which influenced Dylan and his journey to New Jersey to visit American folk legend Woody Guthrie – and comments from Dylan’s Greenwich Village folkie/artist chums to tell his story. The concert footage, which includes the performance when he first went electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival and Dylan’s live reaction to the infamous “Judas!” incident, will become sacred to Dylan aficionados. The quality, as well as the rarity of this footage, is unparalleled by any bootleg. Present-day Dylan, clad in black leather, adds thoughts he sees fit to share. The first half of “No Direction Home” contrasts Dylan at his breaking point in ’66, far from whatever “home” is, with his small-town Minnesota origins; he works the coffeehouses in New York, is discovered by producer John Hammond, starts writing his own songs and becomes a prominent voice of the civil rights movement. The second half shows Dylan distancing himself from fans and reporters’ incessant labeling and questioning. There’s no cryptic motivation for his metamorphosis and withdrawal: Dylan does what any real artist would, ignore the bullshit and doing and saying what he wants.

In the documentary, Dylan says that as an artist, “You’re constantly in a state of becoming.” Scorsese doesn’t set out to explain his subject; he lets this story unfold on his own. “No Direction Home” provides a thorough and spellbinding document of one of the most fascinating public (and not-so-public) figures of the 20th century, and Scorsese shows us in a way that will satisfy Dylan’s longtime devotees and draw in new fans.

 

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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